Ohio State faces Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, with the winner playing for the national championship. Here are some storylines and predictions for the Buckeyes ahead of the College Football Playoff.
If not for Michigan State’s last-second victory in a driving rain storm last year at the Horseshoe, Ohio State would be joining Alabama as three-time participants in the College Football Playoff. Urban Meyer has built a machine since taking over the Buckeyes, blazing the recruiting trails and not skipping a beat in the talent department.
A second national championship – and potential second victory over Alabama in the CFP – in three years isn’t out of the question with J.T. Barrett, Curtis Samuel and Mike Weber leading the way offensively. And we haven’t even mentioned the defense yet.
Clemson is the higher-seeded team in this national semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl, but that’s neither here nor there. Here are five storylines and predictions leading up to the New Year’s Eve clash.
Ohio State didn’t win the Big Ten title? So what.
Traditionalists believe only teams that win conference championships should be eligible for the College Football Playoff. The committee says it will choose the country’s best four teams without stipulations. Debate all you want on whether or not it gets every team correct, but the inclusion of Ohio State was the right thing to do.
Many clamored for Penn State to be in after beating the Buckeyes in the regular season, winning the Big Ten East via the head-to-head tiebreaker and then beating Wisconsin in the conference title game. But save for that Oct. 22 night in Happy Valley, Ohio State is the better team. And really, that’s what all this is about.
Ohio State will score a defensive touchdown
The Buckeyes returned seven of their 19 interceptions for touchdowns, doing so two more times than any other team in the nation. Malik Hooker, a unanimous first-team All-American, tied for the national lead with three INTs returned to the house while picking off a total of six passes, which tied for fifth in the country. Marshon Lattimore added four interceptions. None of that bodes well for Deshaun Watson.
The Clemson quarterback finished second to Lamar Jackson for the Heisman Trophy, but he also threw 15 interceptions. Watson is going to throw at least one in the Fiesta Bowl, and that could turn into six points for the Buckeyes.
Barrett, Samuel and Weber vs. Clemson’s ACC-best defense
Take away the pass? That’s fine, because Barrett can run the ball, too. Barrett ran for 54 times for 130 yards and a touchdown against Michigan State and Michigan in the Buckeyes’ last two games and finished with nine rushing TDs overall. He also tossed 24 touchdowns against only five interceptions. Barrett is the definition of a dual-threat QB.
Speaking of versatility, Samuel was named a first-team All-American as an all-purpose player. He rushed for 704 yards and eight touchdowns and caught 65 passes for 822 yards with seven more scores. Weber is a perfect complement, running for 1,072 yards and nine TDs with help from center Pat Elflein, who also was named a first-team All-American.
The Buckeyes have plenty more weapons that will challenge a Clemson defense that allowed the fewest total yards per game in the ACC at 313.9. The Tigers, however, gave up 586 against Louisville, 449 against Florida State and 464 to Pittsburgh, which is the only team to beat them this season.
Ohio State will hold Clemson to fewer than 350 yards
Ohio State tied Alabama for the most players on the three All-America teams with six. That list includes junior linebacker Raekwon McMillan on the second team, and he’s going be all over Watson and Tigers running back Wayne Gallman. And there’s a good chance Clemson is starting with poor field position more often than not anyway with second-team punter Cameron Johnston pinning it deep.
The Buckeyes held nine of their 12 opponents to fewer than 350 yards, and they’re going to make it 10 in the Fiesta Bowl. That’s the boldest prediction yet considering Clemson gained fewer than 400 only once, when they finished with 399 yards in a season-opening win over Auburn.
Samuel will win Fiesta Bowl MVP in Ohio State’s victory
Samuel’s 270 total yards and two touchdowns will earn him the game’s highest honor as the Buckeyes advance to the national championship game to face Nick Saban’s mighty Crimson Tide.