Preview:

Second to only Clemson and Alabama, the Clemson Tigers and Ohio State Buckeyes series has developed into one of the biggest “rivalries” in the college football playoff era.

Now the programs will meet in a CFP semifinal for the third time. Clemson leads the all-time series over Ohio State 4-0 with wins coming in the 1978 Gator Bowl (17-15); the 2014 Orange Bowl (40-35), 2016 Fiesta Bowl/CFP Semifinal (31-0); and most recently a thriller in the desert in last season’s 2019 Fiesta Bowl/CFP Semifinal, (29-23).

Clemson enters the game as ACC Champions for the sixth straight season with an overall record of 10-1 which includes wins over No. 7 Miami and No. 3 Notre Dame. The Buckeyes are 6-0 and Big 10 Champions. OSU’s best wins are a 38-25 triumph over a 4-5 Penn State squad which was No. 18 at the time. Additionally, Ohio State has a top-15 win over No. 14 Northwestern in the Big 10 Title game.

Four previous meetings and all have gone in favor of Clemson in this blooming rivalry that dates back to 1978 when OSU head coach Woody Hayes punched Clemson’s Charlie Bauman. From recruiting battles to the previous three losses all under the Dabo Swinney era, it’s pretty clear the two teams don’t exactly love each other. Although, I think it is also safe to say Ohio State has more of a problem with Clemson than the other way around. Toss in Swinney’s 11th ranking in the coaches poll for Ohio State and Ryan Day’s locker room “We’re going to (expletive) kick their ass” rant and there’s just no shortage of story lines, drama, and ‘trash talk’ leading up to this one.

Today, I take a brief look at keys to the game for both squads as the two programs battle it out once more with a national championship appearance on the line for the second straight season.

Keys to victory for Ohio State

1. Win first down

I see an area for the Buckeyes to focus on here with first down. The Buckeyes can’t allow Clemson to carve up 5-7 yards on first down and be able to get more creative with play calling. This defense isn’t what it was a year ago I think at full strength this Clemson offense is beginning to really come into its own. OSU must be productive on first down and get the Tigers into some second and long, third and medium situations. And force Lawrence to make the throws. Yes, we all know he can, but they have to make him earn it with his arm, not his feet.

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) runs 67-yards for a touchdown during the second quarter of the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl of the College Football Playoffs semi-final game, at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona Saturday, December 28, 2019. Clemson Vs Ohio State Fiesta Bowl

2. Capitalize Early

Ohio State could have blown this game WIDE open last season had they been able to capitalize early on Clemson’s slow start and been more efficient in the red zone. This time around, they can’t allow a lead to slip away against this team that is as healthy and playing as soundly as it has all year. Winning the field position and turnover battle is key early for the Buckeyes. Make the Tigers go the distance if they are going to score. Clemson has been known to take a series or two to really get going and if that happens and the door is left open to throw the first blow, Justin Fields and company must make the most of it.

3. Attack The Secondary

With Nolan Turner out for the first half due to a targeting call in the ACC title game, the first half will be nice opportunity for Ohio State to try and cash in on some man coverage opportunities down field. While this is the deepest secondary Clemson has had in some time they’ve struggled to all be healthy at one time. And the Tigers have gotten caught with their pants down in the secondary a few times. Clemson has several bodies they can rotate out in his absence but Turner, the 2019 Fiesta Bowl closer, will be missed in the first half. Assuming Justin Fields thumb is healed and he is able to do what he needs to, they need to take some shots early and test Clemson’s secondary with his two biggest weapons in the passing game, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson.

Dec 28, 2019; Glendale, AZ, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) runs with the ball towards Clemson Tigers defensive end Xavier Thomas (3) in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl college football playoff semifinal game at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Darryl Webb/Arizona Republic via USA TODAY NETWORK Ncaa Football College Football Playoff Semifinal Ohio State Vs Clemson

Keys to victory for Clemson

1. Establish the running game

It should go without saying but getting Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne going early is going to be huge. Ohio State has to account for Lawrence/Etienne and RPOs and it doesn’t take much to find a lane and exploit it. That will help free up Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell for some down field strikes as well. Along with the emergence of EJ Williams becoming a reliable target in the middle of the field, the Clemson offense becomes even more dangerous. Remember, the Tigers didn’t have a healthy Justyn Ross or Tee Higgins in last year’s meeting. We know Clemson is going to take shots in the air and if the running game is clicking early that’s just more ammo in the bag for Dabo Swinney and Brandon Street as fill-in Offensive Coordinator to get creative with down the stretch. The Buckeyes also now have to keep an eye out for different tendencies. Clemson isn’t changing what it does overnight but when certain situations arise, Clemson could have the upper hand with a different playcaller at the helm. Further, Ohio State doesn’t have Chase Young and that consistent pass rush this year nor are they as strong on the back end.

2. Christmas is Over: No Gifts

Last year Clemson dug itself into a whole early against the Buckeyes forcing them to play on their heels for much of the game. This time around, the Tigers need to be the aggressor and if they are unable to get the juices flowing early, they at least need to play field position and not allow any freebies to Ohio State. Take care of the football and execute on special teams. But most importantly, they can’t allow a careless turnover to lead directly to points for Ryan Day’s squad.

3. Red zone defense

This was an area Clemson thrived in last season against Ohio State and will once again be key. With Fields tossing interceptions left and right including some in the end zone, I anticipate Venables again being strategic and aggressive in the red zone and doing whatever he can to cause confusion for Fields and the offense. Clemson’s ability to make adjustments has been proven throughout the season and there’s no reason to expect much different from a healthy Tiger defense Friday night in NOLA. The secondary is coming off one of it’s best outings of the year coverage wise and the defensive line/linebackers continues to come up with big plays. Back on the field where it gave up a lot of points to LSU a season ago, Clemson will be looking for a much better performance back in the dome.

Prediction

Dec 28, 2019; Glendale, AZ, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Shaun Wade (24) tackles Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence (24) in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl college football playoff semifinal game at State Farm Stadium. Wade would be ejected from the game for targeting. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I think overall Clemson is slightly better than they were a year ago and Ohio State overall is slightly worse. Justin Fields hasn’t exactly shined in his limited action this year and has struggled taking care of the football against better competition. (See Indiana and Northwestern) We also don’t know just how healthy that thumb is for Fields and how that will impact the passing game just his grip of the football in general. I think Clemson has both the physical advantage and benefit of game reps but also has the mental edge. Playing games matter, especially against quality competition which OSU has yet to do in its six games.

As far as the mental aspect, Swinney knew what he was doing placing them 11th. The Tigers own Ohio State right now. It’s no secret. Clemson shines in moments like these more times than not and Clemson is eager to finish the job this time around. If the Tigers are healthy I literally don’t see how Ohio State is able to keep pace for four quarters. They’ve also never defeated Clemson and that pressure looms large in that locker room. Nothing they’ve shown this season makes me believe they can do what Notre Dame did on Nov. 7 against a depleted Tiger squad. I think both teams make some big plays but I think Brent Venables defense is once again the difference and causes problems for this Buckeye offense.

They are too predictable in the passing game with Olave and Wilson essentially being the only two targets OSU has consistently used this season. It’s a blow to Clemson that the Tigers won’t have Tony Elliott in NOLA but it’s not the end of the world. And let’s not forget he was there for all the game prep back in Clemson. The game plan doesn’t change with his absence, and this team knows how to respond in these types of adverse situations. At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to executing the game plan. And I trust this coaching staff and players more than Ohio State based on what I’ve seen and read this season.

The Pick: Clemson 35 Ohio State 24