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Fiesta Bowl Preview and Prediction: Clemson vs. Ohio State

Deshaun Watson

Deshaun Watson

The second game of the College Football Playoff is arguably the most anticipated matchup of the bowl season, as Ohio State takes on Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night. The winner of this matchup will take on Alabama or Washington in Tampa, Fla. on Jan. 9 to decide the 2016 national championship.

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Clemson is just 60 minutes away from back-to-back appearances in the national title game. The Tigers finished 14-1 last season and gave Alabama all it could handle in last year’s championship matchup. With a loaded offense and plenty of young talent waiting to emerge on defense, Clemson entered 2016 as one of the frontrunners to win it all. However, the odds of another trip to the CFB Playoff were working against the Tigers. After all, only one team – Alabama – went back-to-back as national champions and Florida State was expected to emerge once again as a title contender from the ACC. However, Clemson once again set the standard for the rest of the conference and finished the regular season at 12-1. The Tigers suffered a 43-42 home loss to Pitt in November but benefited from losses by a couple of other contenders on that Saturday and finished the season with three straight victories to rank No. 2 in the final rankings. As expected, quarterback Deshaun Watson anchored an explosive offense. The defense quickly reloaded behind a standout defensive line and limited opponents to just 18.4 points a game.

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After just missing the CFB Playoff last season, Ohio State is back in the four-team playoff for the second time under coach Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes claimed the national title in 2014 and finished No. 4 in the final Associated Press poll last year after a 12-1 mark. Ohio State cruised to a 6-0 start with impressive wins over Oklahoma and Wisconsin, but Meyer’s team was stunned on the road at Penn State on Oct. 22 for the first loss of the season. Following the defeat against the Nittany Lions, Ohio State rebounded with five consecutive wins, including a 30-27 thriller over rival Michigan. While the Buckeyes ranked as the best team from the Big Ten, Penn State’s head-to-head victory on Oct. 22 propelled coach James Franklin’s team to an appearance in the Big Ten title game. The CFB Playoff selection committee didn’t hold the lack of a conference title against Ohio State. Instead, the committee valued the Buckeyes’ wins over Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Michigan – all top-10 teams in 2016.

Ohio State and Clemson have played only two previous times. The Tigers are 2-0 against the Buckeyes, with the last meeting in the 2014 Orange Bowl. Clemson is 5-4 in postseason games under Swinney, while Ohio State is 3-1 under Meyer.

Clemson vs. Ohio State (Fiesta Bowl – Playoff Game)

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 31 at 7 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Ohio State -3

Three Things to Watch

1. Ohio State’s Passing Game

The numbers on Ohio State’s passing attack certainly aren’t awful. The Buckeyes ranked sixth among Big Ten teams by averaging 221.2 passing yards per game and led the conference by completing 62.8 percent of their passes. Quarterback J.T. Barrett earned first-team All-Big Ten honors by Athlon Sports after throwing for 2,428 yards and 24 scores. Barrett also rushed for 847 yards and nine scores.

While Barrett’s numbers and production from the passing attack is more than enough to win against Clemson, a deeper look into the stats shows signs of concern. Ohio State has just four passes of more than 40 yards (tied for ninth among Big Ten teams) and there’s a lack of big-play targets in the receiving corps. Curtis Samuel (65 receptions) is the best option for Barrett, while Noah Brown (7 TD catches), Dontre Wilson (27) and K.J. Hill (17) round out the key contributors at receiver. Tight end Marcus Baugh (24 grabs) is another key piece in the passing game.

The lack of a reliable No. 2 target outside of Samuel and a shortage of big plays is a huge concern for Ohio State on Saturday. Clemson’s defense ranked No. 5 nationally in pass efficiency defense, with cornerback Cordrea Tankersley ranking among the best in the nation at his position. Safety Jadar Johnson is another standout for coordinator Brent Venables, and the secondary has plenty of support from a stacked defensive line. The Tigers generated 46 sacks in 13 games and ranked No. 22 nationally against the run. Carlos Watkins, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins are a trio of standouts in the trenches and will make life difficult for Ohio State’s offensive line on Saturday.

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Clemson’s defense is likely to aim on stopping Ohio State running back Mike Weber (1,072 yards) and Barrett on the ground. Can the Tigers force Barrett and his receivers to consistently make plays through the air? And if Ohio State is forced to win this one with its passing game, will a No. 2 receiver step up to take some of the pressure off of Samuel?

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2. Ohio State’s Defense Against Clemson’s Offense

Strength versus strength. That’s the easiest way to describe the matchup between Ohio State’s defense and Clemson’s offense.

Despite returning only three starters this fall, the Buckeyes didn’t miss a beat on defense. Under the direction of new play-caller Greg Schiano, Ohio State finished third nationally by limiting opponents to 14.2 points per game. The Buckeyes also held opposing offenses to just 4.2 yards per play and allowed only 10 passing scores. It’s hard to find a weak link on this unit, as each level features a standout performer. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan is one of the best in the nation at his position, safety Malik Hooker recorded six interceptions, and end Tyquan Lewis (7.5 sacks) leads a wealth of talent in the trenches.

Ohio State’s standout defense did not allow an opponent to score more than 30 points in 2016 but that accomplishment will be tested on Saturday night. Quarterback Deshaun Watson leads a Clemson offense that averages 40.2 points per game and 6.4 yards per play. Watson’s passing yardage dipped slightly from 2015 (3,914 in 2016 from 4,104 in 2015) and his interceptions increased (13 last year to 15). The slight increase in interceptions and dip in passing yardage isn’t concerning, but one puzzling stat is the drop in big plays by the passing game. Watson connected on 29 passes of 30 yards or more last season and that total dropped to 20 in 2016. Additionally, Watson only landed five passing plays of 40 yards or more – a sharp drop from the 15 last fall. Generating big plays on Saturday night could be another tough obstacle for Clemson. Ohio State ranked second nationally by holding teams to just four plays of 40 yards or more.

Regardless of whether or not Clemson can land big plays in the Fiesta Bowl, this offense is going to be the best unit Ohio State has faced. In addition to Watson’s ability to hurt defenses through the air or on the ground, running back Wayne Gallman (1,002 yards) has reached 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, and there’s a deep cache of receivers. Mike Williams (84 catches) is one of the nation’s most physically gifted receivers, and tight end Jordan Leggett (38 grabs) is capable of stretching the middle of the field.

Stopping Clemson starts with the defensive front. Can Ohio State generate pressure with its front four and cover on the back end? Watson hasn’t utilized his legs in 2016 as much as he did last year. Could that change in the Fiesta Bowl? Clemson’s offensive line has been inconsistent at times but played better late in the season. Will this unit keep Watson’s jersey clean and provide plenty of time to test the depth of Ohio State’s secondary?

3. Turnover Battle

There’s a significant disparity in turnover margin between these two teams. Before we dish on the numbers, it’s important to note there’s a good bit of luck involved with turnovers (forcing or recovering). Regardless of the luck factor involved with turnovers, this area is still going to play a huge role in how this game plays out on Saturday.

Ohio State ranked third nationally in turnover margin with a plus-16 mark this fall. The Buckeyes gained 25 turnovers and only lost nine in 12 games. On the other sideline, Clemson ranked 68th nationally with an even (zero) margin. The Tigers lost and gained 24 turnovers this season.

Just how important could this area be on Saturday? In Clemson’s only loss of 2016 (Pitt), Swinney’s team was minus-two in the turnover margin. The Buckeyes posted only one game (Indiana) of more than one lost turnover.

In a tight game, stealing a possession or preventing points inside of the red zone could be a deciding factor. Will Clemson avoid the turnover bug? Or will Ohio State continue to play mistake-free ball and win the turnover battle to help slow down the Tigers’ high-powered offense?

Final Analysis

As we mentioned in the introduction, this is one of the most anticipated games of the bowl season. There’s no shortage of intrigue with the individual matchups, as Clemson’s explosive offense faces a stout Ohio State defense. Will the Tigers use Watson more in the running game? And when Clemson has the ball, can this unit find balance on the ground and land a couple of a big plays? Ohio State’s defense may bend, but coordinator Greg Schiano would give up three points instead of seven when the Tigers enter the red zone. When Ohio State has the ball, it’s no secret Meyer is going to rely heavily on quarterback J.T. Barrett, receiver Curtis Samuel and running back Mike Weber. However, the Buckeyes need another playmaker or two to step up. Clemson’s defensive front is among the best in the nation, and the secondary will aim to keep Samuel in check. The Tigers are hungry for another shot at Alabama and a chance to win the national title. This one goes deep into the fourth quarter, but Watson and the Clemson passing attack is the difference in a tight game.

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Prediction: Clemson 31, Ohio State 27