The wait for the Ohio State and Clemson game in the Fiesta Bowl of the college football playoff is almost over. This has been the most anticipated football game of the season and let’s hope it lives up to the hype. It has been a very tough game to pick as the two teams are pretty evenly matched and is a matchup between the two most complete teams in college football. With all due respect to LSU this feels a lot like the national championship game and the winner of this game can potentially go on to win the national title. The game and matchup in the semifinal of the college football playoff reminds me a lot of the 2014 Sugar Bowl between Ohio State and Alabama, a classic game that Ohio State won 42-35. I’m excited to get into this game and give my prediction on what I think will happen and who will win Saturday night.
I want to first compare this game to the 2014 Sugar Bowl, since that also felt like a game that was for the national title because the winner of that game went on to win the national championship game. Quite frankly there haven’t been many good college football playoff semifinal games in the history of the playoff or even games that were close, and the 2014 Sugar Bowl stands alone as the best semifinal game to date. I believe this Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State and Clemson has the potential to be as good of a game as that one was. That game was somewhat a back and forth game but also one that involved a big Ohio State scoring run that changed the game in their favor for good. It was a game of big plays for Ohio State both on offense and defense, and a game that was won by the team who made fewer mistakes. The game did not start off great for Ohio State, as missed opportunities and an interception by Alabama led to a 21-6 lead early on but was a game where Ohio State was still out-gaining them in yards up until that point. You know the rest of the story, as Ohio State scored 28 points in a row to take a 34-21 lead. I remember at halftime Ohio State scored a touchdown on a trick play to pull within one point and take the momentum going into the half, and they never looked back. They key play in that game was an interception by defensive end Steve Miller that was returned for a touchdown to make the score 34-21.
I bring that up because a play like that is exactly what could decide a game like the Fiesta Bowl tomorrow night between evenly matched teams. My hope in this game is for a game like the 2014 Sugar Bowl, a great game that’s a battle all the way until the end, simply because there has only been one other memorable semifinal game in the six years of the playoffs existence. I know this sounds too obvious, but the team who plays better and makes less costly mistakes will win this game. Which is why it’s important for Ohio State to play its best most complete game of the season to date. This will be a game decided by who makes the least mistakes and wins the turnover battle. This is definitely a game Ohio State can win, but if they fumble and turn over the ball and muff punts like they’ve been prone to do, they will lose this game. They can’t afford to make these mistakes and win.
As good as the Big Ten is, Ohio State is the most talented team and were able to overcome these mistakes because they were just that much better, and in this game that’s simply not the case. I’ve heard some people like Ryan Day say we have had games that were so-called “talent equated” but that simply hasn’t been true until now. Ohio State has had better athletes and talent than any team they have played up to date, and the game tomorrow is the first game where the talent and skill on both teams is actually equal. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this matchup, and while I’ve went back and forth and it’s a tough call I’m picking Ohio State to win this game.
I bring up the turnovers and mistakes because while I’m picking the Buckeyes, I will be wrong and they will lose if they have more costly mistakes and turnovers than Clemson. I have believed all year that Ohio State’s A game is better than anyone else’s, and my belief in that is why I’m picking Ohio State. Since this game has been announced I have noticed that Clemson is the more popular pick, but I’m picking Ohio State. I know Clemson is the defending national champion and has won 28 games in a row, but this Ohio State team is better than anybody Clemson has played during the winning streak, and yes I’m including the national championship game against Alabama last year in that list. I’ve heard many people try to compare this game to that game last year and I really don’t understand why. For starters, Alabama on defense last year was ranked outside the top 50 in pass defense and Ohio State is top 5 this year. This is the best defense Trevor Lawrence has ever faced, and while he’s yet to lose a game as a starter I think his first loss will come tomorrow night. Ohio State is built to beat Clemson, and their A game is better than Clemson’s.
While Clemson has the top ranked pass defense in the nation, their run defense really isn’t anything special. Ohio State showed against Michigan what their formula is to beat a team like Clemson, by giving JK Dobbins 30+ carries and throwing downfield with play action to Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. What really gives me confidence is that this offense is run a lot like the offense ran in the 3 game stretch to win the national title in 2014 with Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones. I expect Ohio State to come out and pound it with Dobbins in the run game until Clemson proves that it can stop it. I’m not so sure they can stop it, but I also believe Clemson is going to try to force Justin Fields to throw to win the game. The gameplan has to be to run the ball and the clock and keep the explosive Clemson offense off the field. There is such an advantage to being a run first offense as opposed to pass first, and Ohio State has the better rush offense when compared to Clemson, mainly because they make it a bigger part of their offense. Running the ball first keeps the defense off the field and fresh and wears down the opposing defense with long methodical drives, and winning time of possession is critical in a game like this. If Ohio State can have a big advantage in time of possession that’s their key to winning games like this.
While I believe Clemson has the more explosive and talented offense, Ohio State has the better roster overall. Yes they have elite players, especially on offense with guys like Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne, Tee Higgins, and Justyn Ross and on defense with Isaiah Simmons, but outside those players they don’t have the quality guys that Ohio State has. If you rank the 2 teams on both sides of the ball, the Clemson defense would come last and I’m not sure it’s close. Ohio State definitely has more defensive talent, with NFL players all over the field that includes Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, Shawn Wade, and Jordan Fuller. I’m not saying Ohio State will shut down Clemson on offense, but they will slow them down enough to come out on top. The defensive talent and the style of offense by Ohio State is why I say they are built to beat Clemson. When Clemson is on offense and Ohio State is on defense it will be like watching an NFL game when you see the Ohio State secondary going up against elite Clemson receivers, and watching Chase Young try to get after Trevor Lawrence and affect the pass game as well.
While Clemson has a really good running back in Travis Etienne, he’s not a huge part of the offense and isn’t really used enough. They are more pass heavy on offense and he only averages around 15 carries per game, and Ohio State has had a good run defense. They have shut down the run game of most teams they have played, but the concern is that in the Big Ten title game Ohio State struggled to stop Jonathan Taylor and missed a lot of tackles in the first half. While he ran for 150 yards most of those came in the first half and he was a non factor in the second half. While that is concerning what happened in that first half, I would call that an outlier and not the norm when you look at the entirety of the season. One bad half all year doesn’t make that all that concerning, but they have to clean up the missed tackles because Travis Etienne is a strong runner whose known to be hard to bring to the ground, especially one on one. The real concern has to be Tuf Borland having to tackle Etienne in the open field by himself, because the reality is that he won’t make the play. I talk about the Clemson offense being pass heavy because I think it could cause Ohio State to change up their personnel on defense. I’ve heard a lot of talk about the possibility of playing a second high safety and using Josh Proctor, a formation Ohio State hasn’t really used all year. The fact Clemson has an elite receiver on both sides on the field puts a lot on Jordan Fuller’s shoulders as the only high safety in the game. I think Ohio State will run a 4-2-5 defense more than they have all year. Not that I think they use that all game long, but they have to have their most athletic defense on the field, and to do that they need five defensive backs on the field with the two linebackers being Malik Harrison and Baron Browning. In obvious run situations like 3rd and short I see Ohio State employing their normal defense or maybe even four linebacker sets to stop the run on short yardage situations.
Giving a final score prediction for any game can be difficult, but I’m still gonna give one. I think it plays out that Ohio State will be able to run the ball with success on Clemson and will be able to win the battle of time of possession and turnovers and limit their mistakes and win a close game. I think Clemson will move the ball and be hard to stop, but Ohio State will be able to limit the big plays and slow them down just enough to come out on top. With all that being said, my score prediction is Ohio State pulling out a close one 35-31 and going on to face LSU in the national championship game against former Ohio State quarterback Joe Burrow. This should be a classic game and the better team will come out on top as long as they play up to their full potential.