SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Ohio State will face off against an unfamiliar foe in the College Football Playoff on Saturday.
The Buckeyes played Clemson three seasons ago in the Orange Bowl, but this will be just the third meeting between the teams. (Clemson won that game as well as the 1978 Gator Bowl). Since that meeting in January 2014, both teams have thrived. Ohio State won the College Football Playoff the following season while Clemson advanced to the title game last season before losing to Alabama.
To learn more about Ohio State’s Fiesta Bowl opponent, we’ve turned to Anna Hickey of 247 Clemson to get the Clemson point of view. You can follow her on Twitter at @AnnaH247 and you can read her work here.
Q: Dabo Swinney seems like the best-case scenario result of hiring an interim coach full time. How has he built the program into a national power?
Hickey: In my eyes, it’s a multifaceted answer: how he’s assembled his coaching staff, the culture/expectations he’s created, and the talent he’s acquired.
Swinney’s decision in 2011 to fire Billy Napier (now wide receivers coach at Alabama) as offensive coordinator and hire Chad Morris, who was unproven at the Power 5 level, propelled much of what’s been built at Clemson in the past six years. A year later, Swinney fired former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele (now defensive coordinator at Auburn) and hired Brent Venables away from Oklahoma.
He’s similar to Urban Meyer in that he’s at the forefront of his staff’s recruiting efforts and highly involved in the recruitments of Clemson’s top prospects from beginning to end.
But at the end of the day, coaching and talent only work if there’s a vision and a means to achieve that vision. And that’s probably what Swinney will best be remembered for when his Clemson career is over. He took over a program with a reputation of losing to teams it had no business losing to and turned it into one that has won 10 games for six consecutive seasons, has won back-to-back ACC Championships and has netted 10 wins over top-10 opponents since 2009.
How does this year’s Clemson team compare, either in style of play or talent, to last year’s team that nearly won the national championship?
Hickey: It’s a more focused group as it relates to the juniors/seniors that have declared for the NFL Draft. Clemson experienced issues in this department as the season wore on (last year), especially in the College Football Playoff. Players in the past month haven’t shied away from talking about how this affected the team last year and how leadership has been different this year.
Secondly, Clemson didn’t have its best wide receiver and probable No. 1 pick at the position in the draft in Mike Williams, who injured his neck on the first game of the 2015 season. He’s been Deshaun Watson’s No. 1 target all year.
Coverage units on special teams are also much better this year.
On the flip side, the offensive line has taken more time to develop this season than most probably thought would be the case. Pass protection’s been great for the most part. However, Watson’s mobility deserves credit too for the low number of sacks Clemson has allowed (1.08 per game).
All in all, Clemson had to replace eight starters on defense and a couple key guys up front on the offensive line. It’s been a next-man-up mentality, which has worked because of the talent Clemson’s accumulated and how well it’s identified and developed the high 3-star/low 4-star types.
Hickey: Part of the interceptions have been on Watson, but not all of them. His wide receivers have contributed to the total (15). He’s been much better in not throwing interceptions in his past three outings, having thrown just two since the Clemson’s loss to Pittsburgh on Nov. 12.
A chunk of Watson’s interceptions have come in the red zone, as opposed to downfield, so that’s something to watch vs. Ohio State.
Q: At what area or position is Clemson best suited to cause problems for Ohio State?
Hickey: The obvious answer is Clemson’s defensive line vs. Ohio State’s offensive line when Barrett drops back to throw. Clemson averages 3.54 sacks per game, which ranks second in the nation.
Less obvious is Clemson’s slot receiver vs. Ohio State’s nickel, especially in space.
Q: Clemson has looked phenomenal at times this year but also had games where it only beat Troy and North Carolina State by 6-7 points. What’s behind those discrepancies?
Hickey: The main culprits in Clemson experiencing close games this year have been turnovers and lacking a bit of a killer instinct in the second half when it has a comfortable lead. The Tigers had five turnovers against Louisville, four against N.C. State and three against Pittsburgh. It’s been a mix of fumbles and interceptions.
In the seven games this season that Clemson’s had zero or one turnover on offense, it has outscored teams 328-72.
Drops were also an issue for Clemson in the beginning of the season. Against Auburn and Troy, Clemson had 12.
Q: What’s your prediction?
Hickey: Neither team feels like a major underdog in this game, and Vegas has a similar line of thinking, pun intended. I think that bodes better for Ohio State because Clemson thrives on being the dog. Clemson has Watson, dynamite receivers and a stingy defense. However, the Buckeyes own a coaching advantage in Urban Meyer (in my opinion) and the trump card of a consistent run game. Ohio State 33, Clemson 30