COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State has returned to the College Football Playoff, and its road to another national championship begins with quite a test.
The No. 3 Buckeyes (11-1, 8-1 Big Ten) will take on No. 2 Clemson (12-1, 7-1 ACC) in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31. The matchup pairs the 2014 champion with the 2015 runner-up. Ohio State and Clemson last met in the Orange Bowl following the 2013 season, with the Tigers taking a 40-35 victory.
Here’s everything you need to know about the team standing between Ohio State and the national championship game.
1. Clemson has talent
The Tigers will arguably be the most talented team on paper that Ohio State has faced this season. Led by a Heisman contender in quarterback Deshaun Watson at quarterback, Clemson has no shortage of difference makers. Nine Tigers obtained first-team All-ACC status: wide receiver Mike Williams, tight end Jordan Leggett, tackle Mitch Hyatt, guard Tyrone Crowder, center Jay Guillermo, defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, linebacker Ben Boulware, cornerback Cordrea Tankersly and safety Jadar Johnson. Ironically, Watson didn’t make the list because Heisman favorite Lamar Jackson also plays in the ACC.
“They’re all NFL players,” Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said. “I would imagine them and Alabama would be the No. 1 team as far as NFL prospects in the country right now.”
2. However, the Tigers aren’t unbeatable
Clemson put together a resume that led the selection committee to rank it second. The Tigers consistently showed this season that they’re one of the top teams in the country. However, they’re not a perfect group, and some cracks in the armor showed.
Obviously, there was the loss to 8-4 Pitt. But on top of that, Clemson occasionally had to work harder than it should have. It escaped with an overtime win against North Carolina State after the Wolfpack botched a last-second field goal. The Tigers also won by just six-point margins at Auburn and against Troy.
3. The offense could test Ohio State’s secondary
Watson, plainly, is a game changer. The junior quarterback completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 3,914 yards and 37 touchdowns. The Tigers own the nation’s seventh-ranked passing offense. They average 332.6 yards per game through the air. Draft sites project Williams as a first-round pick, and NFL.com compared him to Plaxico Burress.
Ohio State will have to be at its best in order to contain the Tigers, especially through the air.
“The skill set on offense is over the top,” Meyer said. “They have one of the top, maybe the top or top two or three players in America in Deshaun Watson. They go fast. They’re creative on offense.”
4. But the Silver Bullets will have their chances
Watson is a great player with an outstanding skill set. However, there’s a reason he didn’t live up to his status as preseason Heisman favorite. Despite all his success, it’s also worth noting that he’s thrown 15 interceptions this season in 13 games. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett threw just five picks in 12 games.
Ohio State’s defense set a program record this season for interceptions returned for touchdowns with six. Furthermore, safety Malik Hooker set an Ohio State record with three pick-6s in one season. Ohio State’s ball-hawking defensive backs should have chances to make an impact once again.
5. Clemson’s defense will make Ohio State work
Clemson has a reputation for being a great offensive team, but the Tigers can also play defense. They’re ninth nationally in total defense. Ohio State will need to improve its pass offense. Clemson ranks 22nd in passing yards allowed, and its pass rush will help even more.
“I think I can do a better job of having ball placement to make it easier on (wide receivers),” Barrett said. “They’re getting open, but it’s not, you know what I’m saying, breakaway. I have to do a great job of getting them the ball.
“Two, just helping out our O-line. O-line is young. We’re going to be in big-time games. Knowing they’re going to pressure us. I think being able to help our O-line slide into protections, blitzes, I can help out on that. I think those are probably the main things.”