Clemson is set to take on Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, so here are some storylines and predictions for the Tigers ahead of the game.
Clemson will battle Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 31 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ.
The Tigers (12-1, 7-1 ACC) won consecutive ACC titles for the first time in 28 years, and they are in the College Football Playoff for the second straight year after defeating Virginia Tech in the conference title game. Quarterback Deshaun Watson was a runner-up to Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in the Heisman Trophy race, although he was plagued by turnovers in ’16.
Clemson and Ohio State met in the Orange Bowl following the 2013 season, and it was a matchup that saw star Tiger Tajh Boyd throw for 378 yards and five touchdowns, while Sammy Watkins had 16 catches for 227 yards in a 40-35 Tigers win.
Dabo Swinney’s Tigers had Nick Saban’s Alabama team on the ropes last year in the College Football Playoff national title game. Will they get a chance at a rematch with the Tide to put a bow on this season?
Watson said earlier this week that he believes himself to be the best player in the country despite finishing second in the Heisman voting. While I deliberated and ultimately had Lamar Jackson ahead of Watson on my ballot, the fact remains that the Tigers’ dual-threat signal-caller is a special talent. His 2016 stats aren’t far off from what he produced in 2015 in some of the most important categories, though he has thrown two more interceptions in two fewer games. However, his play after the Pitt loss was outstanding, and there may not be another quarterback in the country that could have shined as much as he did last year in the close loss to Alabama in the national title game.
No matter if Clemson wins or loses to the Buckeyes, Watson is going out in style with at least 350 combined yards and four touchdowns. This is a player that completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 3,914 yards and 37 touchdowns while leading the nation’s seventh-ranked passing offense.
Up close and personal
The talent on the Tigers defense sometimes gets overlooked because Watson and the offense are always in the spotlight, but coordinator Brent Venables has NFL talent on his unit, which is ranked ninth nationally in total defense. The Tigers don’t give up many yards through the air, and they have a tenacious pass rush. All of these factors lead me to believe that Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett will be able to do most of his damage on the ground, particularly on broken plays when his offensive line is overwhelmed.
Swinney has called this Tigers outfit the “easiest” team he has had to coach as well as the most fun. It certainly has been the most fun from a spectator’s perspective, as the Tigers have played with fire throughout the year yet finished strong in 2016.
Seemingly as soon as last year’s wild 45-40 loss to Alabama went into the record book, though, this has been a focused and determined team that was ready to put behind that sour taste in their mouths. Senior defensive tackle Carlos Watkins and Co. have been driven by that setback to the Crimson Tide, because a win was there for the taking. Sure, Ohio State won the first-ever College Football Playoff, but most of those players are gone from that squad. The experience factor will be big for the Tigers in this one.
Limiting the mistakes
Watson is a phenomenal player with an outstanding skill set. But he did toss 15 interceptions in 13 games this season, including three in the loss to Pitt. In fact, his third pick of that game led to a touchdown that helped spur a Panthers comeback win. Urban Meyer’s defense set a program record this season for interceptions returned for touchdowns with six, and safety Malik Hooker set a team record with three interceptions returned for touchdowns in a single season. It’s a ball-hawking secondary, and it’s one that Watson has to respect. Based on what we have seen this year and the fact that the Tigers love to have Watson dial it up, we’ll see at least one interception from the Tigers quarterback in this one.
Watson’s backfield mate
Watson gets much of the love, but running back Wayne Gallman is a big piece to this offense as well. Over the course of the last two seasons, he has recorded 2,529 yards and 28 touchdowns on the ground. This season, a lot of his work has come early in the contest. As the game wears on, for a few reasons, the Tigers have relied more on Watson’s arm. It’s evident that the Tigers want to feed Gallman the ball early to set up the passing attack.
Can Ohio State clamp down on the star RB? I think the Buckeyes will do a good job against the run, especially if they jump out to an early lead, but I do think that Gallman will be a factor as a pass-catcher coming out of the backfield. His reception numbers have decreased each year since 2014, but that will be an added wrinkle to Clemson’s offensive game plan against the Buckeyes.