SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The weeks leading up to the arrivals here of Ohio State and Clemson for their Fiesta Bowl semifinal showdown in the College Football Playoff possessed about as much drama as a rotary club meeting.
The compliment battle between Ohio State and Clemson grew so intense that the following faux exchange wouldn’t seem far-fetched.
Meyer: “I respect the Tigers times infinity.”
Swinney: “Well I respect the Buckeyes times infinity, plus one.”
Upon arriving in the Grand Canyon State, however, the warm and fuzzy sentiments between the two Fiesta Bowl foes wouldn’t last long. In fact, between the star power, star coaches, big personalities and emerging trash talk, the lead up to the College Football Playoff semifinal is beginning to look like something born out of the brain of WWE icon Vince McMahon.
The first sign of ill will between the Buckeyes and Tigers came on Tuesday as Clemson safety Jadar Johnson discussed Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett.
“We’ve definitely faced better quarterbacks than him,” Johnson said. “I feel like if we can limit him on the ground with his running, we’ll be pretty good. I don’t think he’s a very accurate passer.”
“He’s done it before,” Clemson running back Wayne Gallman said on Wednesday. “We tell him he needs to watch what he needs to say. But I can’t control what comes out of his mouth.”
That advice either fell on deaf ears or came too late. Talking to Ohio State players on Wednesday, the Buckeyes’ roster had clearly taken note of Johnson’s comments — not that this is anything that haven’t been through before.
Prior to playing Penn State in October, Nittany Lions defensive end Evan Schwan echoed similar sentiments about Barrett. Before facing Oklahoma, Sooners backup quarterback Austin Kendall called the Buckeyes defense “basic.”
Asked about Johnson’s recent comments, Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan downplayed the significance of bulletin-board material.
“Nah, man, we’re just focused on what we do,” McMillan said. “Go out and practice hard. We don’t really worry about what’s going on in the media and stuff like that. We just worry about what we can do in today’s practice.”
But when a reporter reminded McMillan of the joy he and his teammates took in mocking Kendall’s comments after beating the Sooners, all he could do was laugh.
“We’re just focused on what we do,” he forced out through a smile. “It will show up on Saturday.
And then he laughed some more.
For one reason or another, drama has followed this Ohio State team this season, even as the Buckeyes have refused to take the bait.
Even 2,300 miles away in Miami, Michigan and Florida State can’t seem to get Ohio State out of their minds as they prepare to face each other in the Orange Bowl. On Tuesday, Seminoles corner Marquez White insisted the Wolverines were “cheated” out of the College Football Playoff because of the controversial fourth-down spot in their regular-season finale against the Buckeyes.
Perhaps some of this criticism was inevitable. Ohio State is the first team to make the College Football Playoff without winning its conference title. And the double-overtime, fourth-down spot has remained a talking point in college football over the course of the past month.
As much as the media (myself included) would like for the Buckeyes to lash out, don’t get your hopes up. For as young as this team is, it’s shown an innate ability to remain focused on the task at hand.
“We don’t really feed into bulletin-board material,” said Buckeyes linebacker Chris Worley. “We respect all our opponents. But at the same time, we expect to beat anyone we play. For us at least, there’s no need to come out and make comments like that.”
Nevertheless, there’s no denying Johnson’s candid comments make for great theater heading into an already highly-anticipated game. At Clemson’s Tuesday practice, Swinney approached the senior defensive back to remind him that, after calling his shot, he now has to back it up.
If he doesn’t, the Buckeyes will take all the more joy in celebrating — like a babyface wrestler who just overcame a jabber-jawing heel.
Superstar players, high stakes, coaches you know on a first name basis and now a little bit of trash talk? What more could you want?
“It’s fun; this is what football’s all about,” said the biggest star of them all, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. “This is what games like this is all about. Having that elite-on-elite competition. Two great teams going head-to-head and having that challenge is what you compete for.”
No argument here.