Preview: Titans clash when OSU meets Clemson
Ohio State football already seems to overshadow everything else in Columbus, and now it will dominate New Year's Eve, too: The Buckeyes face Clemson Saturday night in a Fiesta Bowl that doubles as a College Football Playoff semifinal. Condolences to anyone who was planning a New Year's party built around something other than football.
The Fiesta winner will face Peach Bowl victor Alabama or Washington (but come on, probably Alabama) in the national championship game Jan. 9 in Tampa, Florida, so the stakes Saturday are at least as high as in last month's epic double-overtime victory against Michigan. But this matchup in Glendale, Arizona, is intriguing for reasons beyond its title implications. Here are some of those reasons.
Clash of the titans:An Ohio State-Clemson showdown would be a big deal no matter the context. The Buckeyes and Tigers have been two of college football's elite programs in recent years. Along with Alabama, they're the only schools to have qualified for the playoff more than once in its three-year history. OSU won 2015's inaugural CFP (defeating Alabama in the semifinals), and Clemson finished second in 2016 (losing to Alabama in the final).
Speaking of Alabama:Both teams will be eager to get another shot at the Crimson Tide. Ohio State wants to affirm its supremacy over Nick Saban's presumed juggernaut, thereby establishing the Buckeyes as America's top college football program. Clemson wants to avenge last year's loss.
Speaking of revenge:Ohio State and Clemson last met in the 2014 Orange Bowl, when the Tigers won 40-35. Seniors on each squad were freshmen back then, so there is surely some lingering resentment among the eldest Buckeyes. The coaching staffs surely haven't forgotten that Orange Bowl game, either.
Speaking of the coaches:Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Clemson's Dabo Swinney are two of football's most successful coaches, having lifted their programs back to prominence since taking over in 2012 and 2008 respectively. (They're among the best-paid, too, with Meyer averaging $6.5 million per year and Swinney banking $5 million annually.) With such evenly matched teams, savvy on the sidelines might be the difference - not just on Saturday, but also in the lead-up to the big game. The coach that more effectively preps his team to play mistake-free football under pressure will likely prevail.
Speaking of the players: The Fiesta Bowl's most fascinating storyline is the matchup between two junior quarterbacks. Clemson's Deshaun Watson was the Heisman runner-up, and some forecasters have him pegged as a top-10 pick in this April's NFL draft - understandably so, considering he's a dual-threat QB who passed for 8,000 yards and 72 touchdowns the past two years while completing two-thirds of his attempts. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett does not have such flashy stats - actually, he's been frustratingly inconsistent all year - but he does have one exceptional stat to his name: 26-3, his career record as a starter. Barrett almost always finds a way to win, so no matter how those other numbers stack up, it's risky to bet against him.
It goes way beyond the QBs:Besides Barrett, Ohio State boasts first-team All Americans Curtis Samuel (an explosive hybrid running back/wide receiver), Malik Hooker (a safety with pick-6 prowess), and Pat Elflein (the glue of the offensive line). Playmaking Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams may go even higher than Watson in the NFL draft, and senior linebacker Ben Boulware will have the Tiger defense fired up. It doesn't stop there - each team is so stacked that almost anybody could emerge as the star of the Fiesta Bowl. Whoever it is, they'll be the subject of many toasts this New Year's Eve.
Prediction: Ohio State 33, Clemson 30