Clemson's Mike Williams and Artavis Scott need to come up with big plays against Ohio State's ball-hawking secondary
The race for the national title is down to four as the College Football Playoff semifinal games are set. As fun as Alabama against Washington in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and Clemson vs. Ohio State in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl are, the one-on-ones between the names on the back of the jerseys are even juicier than the ones on the front this postseason.
Whether you’re a college football fan, a coach or an NFL scout, here are 12 of the best position vs. position battles between offensive stars and their defensive counterparts on the other side heading into the two semifinal games:
1. Ohio State DBs Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Damon Webb vs. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson and WRs Mike Williams, Artavis Scott
As much press as Alabama has received for defensive touchdowns, Ohio State isn’t too shabby in the same department thanks to its secondary, which has seven pick-sixes on the season and 19 interceptions total. That back four will face a very stiff test in the Fiesta Bowl as the prolific Clemson offense features one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in Watson and a dangerous tandem that can blow the top off any defense in Williams and Scott.
2. Washington OL Trey Adams, Jake Eldrenkamp and Coleman Shelton vs. Alabama DL Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne and LB Tim Williams
Just about everybody expects Alabama to roll to another title but if Washington wants to pull off a huge upset in the Peach Bowl, the Huskies will need their offensive line to put up a big fight against the Tide’s dominant front seven. The left side of the line all drew praise for its play during a run to the Pac-12 title but this unit will need to take it to another level against the best defensive player in the country in Allen and his pass-rushing teammates.
3. Ohio State OL Pat Elflein, Billy Price and Jamarco Jones vs. Clemson DL Carlos Watkins, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins
Clemson’s rise as an elite program can be traced to having one of the best defensive lines in the country and that is certainly the case again this year with one of the most versatile groups that can get after the passer. Ohio State’s offense has struggled for long stretches trying to block less talented lines but if they can keep J.T. Barrett upright, the Buckeyes will be able to move the ball. That’s a tough task against this group of Tigers however.
4. Alabama DBs Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey vs. Washington QB Jake Browning and WR John Ross
Nick Saban has developed some top-notch defensive backs over the years and has another promising crop in the secondary this year, led by the versatility of Fitzpatrick and the play of a former five-star over at corner. They’ll be tested by the best QB/WR combo they’ve faced this season, as All-Pac-12 players Browning and Ross (15 ypr) are adept at connecting on deep balls down the field.
5. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts and WRs ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley vs. Washington DBs Budda Baker, Sidney Jones, Kevin King and Taylor Rapp
Hurts has been a revelation at quarterback for Alabama this season and made a lasting impact with arm and his legs. He’ll need to hit some big pass plays if the Tide want to win it all this postseason and will take two of the best wideouts in the SEC to the Peach Bowl to face what might be the best secondary in the country. Somebody like Baker will need to help contain Hurts when he launches a ball down the field in addition to taking off running on designed runs and broken plays.
6. Clemson RB Wayne Gallman vs. Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan
As much praise as Deshaun Watson received in leading the Tigers to the playoff last year, it was Gallman who was the team’s key difference-maker game after game. That hasn’t quite been the case as he’s dealt with a few injuries and had to leave games but he’ll play a huge role against the Buckeyes’ stingy defense. One reason OSU doesn’t allow much on the ground? None other than McMillan, who has been a mainstay in the middle dating back to the team’s national title back in 2015.
7. Ohio State H-Back Curtis Samuel and WR Noah Brown vs. Clemson DBs Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson
As Samuel goes, so goes the Buckeyes’ offense. The explosive playmaker has more than 700 yards receiving and rushing on the season and will likely team up with Brown to play a huge role in moving the ball down the field. Both will need to get past two of the ACC’s best defensive backs who don’t mind getting locked in one-on-one out on an island.
8. Clemson LBs Ben Boulware and Dorian O’Daniel vs. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett and RB Mike Weber
Stopping Ohio State starts with slowing down its running game and making Barrett try to find yards through the air. Both the signal-caller and Weber have found the end zone nine times this year and a long run to the title game could result in each going over the 1,000-yard mark on the ground too. Looking to contain them are two of the top linebackers on the East Coast in a tackling machine like Boulware and O’Daniel, who is often all over the field making plays.
9. Washington RBs Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman vs. Alabama LBs Reuben Foster and Rashaan Evans
Folks who don’t follow the Pac-12 probably don’t have much of a clue how good the Huskies’ backfield has been this season but it’s one of the better rushing attacks around with a quality pair of backs. Gaskin leads the way between the tackles but both he and Coleman are capable of ripping off some huge runs and taking it to the house. Trying to stop them will be Foster, who won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker, and Evans, who is replacing injured starter Shaun Dion Hamilton in the middle but has made plenty of plays over the course of his career.
10. Washington DL Elijah Qualls and Vita Vea vs. Alabama OL Cam Robinson and Bradley Bozeman
Robinson has been pegged as a first-round pick since he stepped on campus at Alabama and has handled just about every defensive lineman thrown his way — and there have been some great ones — in recent years and come out on top. He and Bozeman, who mans the middle, will be a tough task to get by for the two Huskies who need to apply pressure and slow down Bama’s vaunted rushing attack.
11. Washington LBs Keishawn Bierria and Psalm Wooching vs. Alabama RB Damien Harris and TE O.J. Howard
Washington’s defense has been one of the best units in the country but seems continually overlooked because of when the Huskies play their games but they have shut down some explosive offenses in impressive fashion. Key to that is their great linebacker corps, which has suffered some major injuries but continues to limit opponents. Both Bierria and Wooching need to limit Harris on the ground during the Peach Bowl while making sure Howard doesn’t beat them in the passing game.
12. Ohio State DL Tyquan Lewis, Michael Hill and Sam Hubbard vs. Clemson OL Tyrone Crowder, Jay Guillermo and Mitch Hyatt
Both of these two semifinalists know that games as big as these are won in the trenches and it will be interesting to see how the Buckeyes’ front does against a veteran group of offensive linemen who know what it takes to make a big run. The Tigers struggled to clear holes and keep the pocket clean for Deshaun Watson in their only loss this year and will be facing a talented group that is led by an All-Big Ten selection in Lewis.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.