The second matchup of the 2019 College Football Playoff is arguably the most-anticipated semifinal since its inception in 2014, as Clemson meets Ohio State in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night. The Buckeyes are back in the CFB Playoff for the first time since the 2016 season, and this appearance also marks the program’s third trip to the semifinals. By earning the No. 3 ranking and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl this season, Clemson has tied Alabama for the most (five) appearances in the CFB Playoff. These two teams have accounted for three of the five national titles during the playoff era.
Under Dabo Swinney’s watch, Clemson has developed into one of the top programs in college football. The Tigers are aiming for their third national title in four seasons and enter Saturday’s game on a 28-game winning streak. A down year in the ACC didn’t help Clemson’s strength of schedule, but Swinney’s team (for the most part) dominated in the 2019 campaign. The Tigers had a close call against North Carolina (21-20) on Sept. 28 but finished the season by winning each of their last eight games by at least 31 points. Clemson is once again loaded with firepower on offense, while the defense didn’t miss a beat despite the departure of several key players from last year’s group.
Ryan Day had big shoes to fill in replacing Urban Meyer as Ohio State’s head coach prior to the 2019 campaign. While Day’s ability to coordinate an offense wasn’t in question, taking over one of the best programs in college football wasn’t easy. However, Day pushed all of the right buttons in his first season, which included a revamped coaching staff and the quick development of Justin Fields at quarterback. Ohio State avoided the puzzling road loss that hindered the program’s playoff hopes in back-to-back years (2017-18) and dominated en route to a Big Ten Championship and 13-0 mark.
This is the fourth time Clemson and Ohio State have met on the gridiron. The Tigers hold a 3-0 series edge over the Buckeyes, including a 31-0 in the 2016 semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl.
Fiesta Bowl: Clemson vs. Ohio State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 28 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Clemson -2
When Clemson Has the Ball
After guiding Clemson to the national championship last season, the bar was set high for quarterback Trevor Lawrence in 2019. The sophomore certainly wasn’t struggling early in the year, but he tossed five interceptions over the first three games and had two picks against Louisville in mid-October. But the since the win over the Cardinals, Lawrence has been playing at a higher level. He hasn’t tossed an interception since Oct. 19 and ended the regular season by completing 68.8 percent of his throws for 3,172 yards and 34 touchdowns to eight picks. Lawrence is also utilizing his legs more this season. After running for just 177 yards in 2018, the sophomore has increased that total to 407 yards and seven scores over 77 carries in ’19.
Lawrence is surrounded by one of the best all-around supporting casts in the nation. Running back Travis Etienne is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. The junior has rushed for 1,500 yards and 17 scores (8.24 ypc) on just 182 attempts. Backup Lyn-J Dixon (619) will also contribute to the ground game on Saturday night. The line also gave up just 13 sacks over 13 regular season matchups in 2019. On the outside, the duo of Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross have combined for 21 touchdown grabs this season. Higgins and Ross form one of the most physically impressive receiver combinations in the nation. Amari Rodgers (14.1 ypc) made a fast recovery from ACL surgery to become a key contributor, with Diondre Overton (20), Joseph Ngata (16) and Frank Ladson (nine) also expected to be involved on Saturday night. An x-factor to watch: Tight end Braden Galloway is eligible after a year-long suspension due to a positive drug test prior to last year’s Cotton Bowl.
Ohio State’s defense will be the best group Clemson has faced this season. The Buckeyes have showed marked improvement under new co-coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley, cutting down the big plays allowed by this group in 2018 and holding opponents to just 12.5 points a contest. This group also ranks first nationally in fewest yards per play allowed (3.93) and seventh against the run. End Chase Young (16.5 sacks) can create all kinds of havoc off the edge for Clemson’s front, but he’s not the only force in the trenches. Davon Hamilton, Jashon Cornell, Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith form a deep group for Mattison and Hafley. Malik Harrison leads the way for an improved linebacker unit, while the secondary allowed only seven passing scores all year. Jeff Okudah was arguably the top cornerback in the nation this season, with Shaun Wade, Damon Arnette and Jordan Fuller joining him as key cogs in the secondary.
Ohio State’s gameplan on defense has to start with getting pressure on Lawrence, limit the big plays by Etienne and the receivers on the outside, while also continuing its success on third downs (fourth nationally).
When Ohio State Has the Ball
The combination of Day’s play-calling and scheme with the talents of quarterback Justin Fields propelled Ohio State’s offense to a place (once again) among the best in college football. The Buckeyes averaged 42.4 points a game behind quarterback Dwayne Haskins last fall but increased that total to 48.7 under Fields in 2019. This offense averages just over seven yards a play (7.02) and is balanced (258.8 on the ground to 272.2 through the air).
Fields was simply flawless in his first year as the starter in Columbus. The Georgia transfer connected on 67.5 percent of his passes for 2,953 yards and 40 touchdowns to just one pick. Fields also ranked second on the team with 10 scores on the ground and placed third in rushing yardage (471). The sophomore suffered a knee injury in the win over Penn State on Nov. 23 and aggravated the ailment on Nov. 30 against Michigan. Likely as a result of the injury, Fields was sacked five times and ran for only one yard in the Big Ten Championship win over Wisconsin. The Buckeyes need a healthy Fields in order to win on Saturday, especially with Clemson likely to generate or bring pressure with its defensive front.
Similar to Clemson, Ohio State has surrounded its quarterback with an outstanding supporting cast. Running back J.K. Dobbins is closing in on 2,000 yards (1,829) and has scored 20 times on the ground this season. Master Teague is a capable No. 2 option who is due for a bigger role in the offense for 2020. While the Buckeyes might not have an All-America candidate at receiver like Tee Higgins or Justyn Ross, this group has five players with at least 21 catches. Chris Olave and K.J. Hill have combined for 21 receiving scores, while freshman Garrett Wilson (26) and Binjimen Victor (31) are two more big-play targets on the outside. The Buckeyes have been a bit prone to giving up sacks (31), but the offensive line has been a strength this year.
Clemson’s defense lost key players at every level from a unit that held teams to just 13.1 points a game last fall. However, the Tigers finished the regular season by holding teams to just 10.6 points a contest. This unit enters the Fiesta Bowl by limiting teams to 3.96 yards a snap and 2.97 yards a rush. Clemson might not have the starpower of last year’s defense in the trenches, but Tyler Davis, Justin Foster, Xavier Thomas and Nyles Pinckney still form a strong foundation up front. Linebacker Isaiah Simmons can play all over the field in a variety of roles and it should be fascinating to see how coordinator Brent Venables deploys the standout on Saturday. Clemson’s secondary allowed only eight passing scores and finished first nationally in pass efficiency defense. However, Fields, Dobbins and a deep receiving corps figures to be the toughest test this unit has faced this year.
On paper, everything about these two teams suggests this is one of the toughest playoff games from the first six years to predict. Both programs have plenty of firepower from two of the nation’s best offenses, which are led by standout quarterbacks with strong supporting casts. On the defensive side of the ball, both units rank among the best in college football. However, this will arguably be the toughest assignment for both teams this season. This game is likely to be decided on whichever team can get a couple of timely stops in the second half and a turnover or two. And just how healthy is Fields’ knee? If he’s close to 100 percent, that’s a big deal for Ohio State’s offense. It’s a toss up, but a small edge goes to Clemson.