The first round of the 2020-21 College Football Playoff concludes with an intriguing rematch of a thrilling matchup last season, as Clemson and Ohio State meet in the Sugar Bowl with a trip for the national title game on the line. The Tigers and Buckeyes met in the Fiesta Bowl last season and played in one of the best playoff games the format has seen since its inception prior to the 2014 season. Ohio State led 16-0 in the first half, but Clemson rallied for a 29-23 victory. That loss has been a driving force and a source of motivation for the Buckeyes in 2020.
Ohio State’s path to the Sugar Bowl was certainly unusual considering the circumstances surrounding this year. The Big Ten was the first Power 5 conference to cancel its season, only to reverse that decision and start play on the weekend of Oct. 24. The Buckeyes defeated Nebraska, Penn State and Rutgers in their first three games, but the season took some unexpected turns after Nov. 7. Coach Ryan Day’s squad had its game against Maryland (Nov. 14) canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, followed by a 42-35 win against Indiana on Nov. 21. COVID-19 forced Ohio State to cancel its Nov. 28 matchup against Illinois, but Day’s team returned to action on Dec. 5 against Michigan State and won 52-12 even though it was shorthanded. The annual rivalry matchup against Michigan was canceled due to COVID-19, ensuring Ohio State hasn’t played back-to-back games since Oct. 31 and Nov. 7. The Buckeyes closed out the regular season with a hard-fought 22-10 victory over Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Clemson is back in the College Football Playoff for the sixth consecutive year under coach Dabo Swinney. The Tigers have played in four out of the last five national championships and have lost just six games since 2015. Swinney’s team started 7-0 before a 47-40 double-overtime loss to Notre Dame with quarterback Trevor Lawrence sidelined due to COVID-19. However, Clemson rebounded to crush Pitt and Virginia Tech by a combined score of 97-27 and beat Notre Dame 34-10 in a rematch in the ACC Championship Game. The Tigers are strong on both sides of the ball once again. The offense ranks third nationally in scoring, while the defense is holding teams to just 17.5 points a game and is surrendering 4.63 yards per play.
Clemson holds a 4-0 series edge over Ohio State. Interestingly enough, all four meetings between these two teams took place in bowls or in the CFB Playoff. The Tigers beat the Buckeyes 31-0 in the 2016 playoff and won 29-23 last season.
Sugar Bowl: Ohio State vs. Clemson (CFB Playoff Semifinal)
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 1 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)
Spread: Clemson -7.5
When Ohio State Has the Ball
Ohio State’s offense enters the Sugar Bowl averaging 7.3 yards per play and 42.5 points a game. And in last year’s matchup, the Buckeyes gashed Clemson for 516 total yards (6.1 per play). However, despite all of that success versus the Tigers last season and in 2020, this unit also enters this matchup looking to get back on track. As mentioned above, COVID-19 hurt Ohio State’s offensive rhythm and limited its personnel late in the season. Against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game, Day’s offense was limited to 22 points and quarterback Justin Fields was held to 114 passing yards on 12 completions.
For the Buckeyes to win on Friday, Fields has to get back on track. The junior suffered a thumb injury in the Big Ten title game but indicated it won’t be a factor during media availability on Monday. Fields threw for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns and added 274 yards and five scores on the ground in 2020. He also connected on 72.6 percent of his throws and has nine completions of 30 yards or more. The good news for Fields is his go-to receiver Chris Olave could return after missing the Big Ten title game. Olave caught 36 passes for 528 yards and five scores, teaming with Garrett Wilson (38 catches for 621 yards) to give Fields two standouts on the outside. However, no other player on the Ohio State roster caught more than nine passes in 2020. Can tight end Jeremy Ruckert or receivers Jameson Williams or Julian Fleming step up on Friday night?
J.K. Dobbins is busy toting the rock for the Baltimore Ravens, but his performance (174 yards) from the last time these teams met ought to provide some insight into how Ohio State could attack Clemson’s defense. Running back Trey Sermon is coming off a huge game (331 yards) against Northwestern and ran for 675 yards over six contests in 2020. Master Teague has also chipped in 449 yards and six scores this fall. Clemson’s defense is only giving up 99.8 rushing yards per contest and just 2.8 a carry. Only one opponent (Notre Dame) ran for more than 148 yards against this unit in 2020. Can Sermon and Teague find running room like Dobbins did in the Fiesta Bowl?
Elite defenses are the standard at Clemson with coordinator Brent Venables at the helm. As expected and despite some injuries to navigate, this unit was stout once again in 2020. The Tigers held opposing teams to just 4.6 yards per play and lead the ACC by limiting teams to 17.5 points a game. No player had more than four sacks, but Clemson recorded 44 overall in 11 games. Additionally, the Tigers ranked first in pass efficiency defense in the ACC and allowed only one team to reach more than 300 passing yards. Clemson’s best path to contain Fields, Olave, Wilson and Sermon probably will borrow some things Northwestern and Indiana deployed against Ohio State in 2020. Both teams had success with pressure or blitzes to get Fields on the move or hold onto the ball for an extra second or two. The Tigers are dealing with a couple of personnel concerns, as Xavier Thomas is questionable to play, and safety Nolan Turner is out the first half due to a targeting penalty in the ACC title game.
In last year’s matchup, Clemson gave up some yards to Ohio State but forced Day’s team to take field goals inside of the red zone. With two high-powered offenses on the field, whichever team wins inside of the red zone and isn’t kicking field goals probably comes out on top.
When Clemson Has the Ball
Clemson’s offense isn’t quite as productive on a per-play basis (6.7) as it was in 2019 (7.4), but this unit is still scoring 44.9 points a game. In other words, this unit is firing on all cylinders coming into the Sugar Bowl, especially with quarterback Trevor Lawrence back after missing two contests due to COVID-19. No defense held the Tigers under 34 points this fall, and coordinator Tony Elliott guided this group to at least 40 points in three out of the final four matchups. Clemson's offense was hit with some bad news on Wednesday afternoon. Elliott is out of the Sugar Bowl due to COVID-19, which means quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter will call plays versus the Buckeyes.
It’s no secret Lawrence is likely to be the No. 1 pick in the draft and his importance to this team was magnified after the loss to Notre Dame. Since returning, the Tigers averaged 6.5 yards per play against Pitt and gashed Virginia Tech and the Fighting Irish in the ACC Championship Game for more than eight yards per play. Lawrence has passed for 2,753 yards and 22 touchdowns to four picks in nine games and connected on 69.2 percent of his passes. The junior’s arm is going to get most of the attention leading up to the Sugar Bowl, but his mobility is an x-factor in this game. Last year, Lawrence ran for 107 yards – including a 67-yard touchdown scamper – versus Ohio State. He’s posted 211 yards and seven scores on the ground in 2020, including a 90-yard performance in the ACC title game.
Clemson’s offensive line has allowed only 18 sacks in 2020, but the run blocking has been a source of frustration at times. Rushers are averaging only 4.6 yards per carry for the Tigers this fall and have generated just three runs of 40 yards or more. Travis Etienne has posted 882 yards and 13 scores but his per-carry average is only 5.6 after averaging over seven in his previous three years on campus. Considering Ohio State’s defense had Chase Young in the trenches last fall, this season’s group isn’t quite up to that standard in 2020. However, this unit is still in good shape. The Buckeyes rank second in the Big Ten in rush defense and limit teams to just 3.4 yards per carry. Keeping Etienne in check would be a good place for Ohio State to start defensively, while Clemson’s coaching staff should counter by finding ways to get the ball in space to the senior running back through passes.
While Ohio State’s defense has been solid up front, concerns remain on the back end. The Buckeyes are seventh in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense and surrendered 491 passing yards in the win over Indiana. This unit has also allowed five pass plays of 40-plus yards in 2020. Without NFL draft picks Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette and Jordan Fuller, there have been growing pains in the secondary. Has the downtime between the Big Ten title game and Sugar Bowl been enough for the Buckeyes to find the right answers here? If Lawrence has time to throw, odds are he will connect on big plays downfield to Amari Rodgers, Cornell Powell and emerging freshman E.J. Williams. It’s up to Ohio State to improve its coverage and get some pressure to slow down some of the opportunities in the passing game.
Last year’s game was a classic in the desert. Will we get another one in the Big Easy this season? Odds favor this matchup being closer than the first semifinal (Alabama-Notre Dame). There’s plenty of motivation for Ohio State after how last season’s game transpired, and Clemson is hungry to get back to the title game and avenge its loss to LSU. This game boasts two elite quarterbacks and skill talent all over the field. Whichever team can win the trenches, get timely stops on defense and score touchdowns inside of the red zone is likely to come out on top. If Ohio State can keep the pass rush away from Fields, the junior could carry this team to a trip to the title game. However, Clemson’s defense will bend a little, but eventually Swinney’s team gets enough stops in the second half, and Lawrence gets the deciding score in the fourth quarter to send the Tigers to Miami.
Prediction: Clemson 34, Ohio State 27
Podcast: Complete Breakdown and Predictions for CFB Playoff Semifinals