Ohio State vs. Clemson: Five storylines to watch

Chris DeVille
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields

The good news for Ohio State football fans: The team has been selected to compete in the College Football Playoff for the third time in six seasons. The bad news: After Wisconsin made the Buckeyes look vulnerable in the Big Ten championship game, they fell from No. 1 to No. 2 and must face No. 3 Clemson, the potential sleeping giant both OSU and top-ranked Louisiana State were hoping to avoid. Ryan Day’s Buckeyes and Dabo Swinney’s Tigers will square off in the Fiesta Bowl this Saturday, Dec. 28 at 8 p.m. on ESPN.

Clemson is the most mysterious of the three undefeated teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (what used to be known as Division I-A). They’ve mostly throttled their competition but haven’t faced any serious challengers — the College Football Research Center’s Billingsley Report ranks their strength of schedule 62nd in FBS, compared to 12th for OSU and 1st for LSU. Of the three undefeated teams, they came closest to being upset, coming from behind to beat a mediocre North Carolina squad by one point back in September.

A lack of signature wins is why the playoff committee slotted the Tigers below their fellow undefeateds, and reasonably so. But Clemson is the defending national champion and — with Alabama missing the playoff for the first time — college football’s ruling dynasty until proven otherwise. Plus, since that close call against UNC, they’ve won every game by at least 31 points. The Tigers could turn out to be made of paper, but they remain a scary opponent, even for a Buckeyes squad that won every game this season by double digits.

Here are five big questions looming over Saturday’s matchup.

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

1. Same old story or a turning of the page?

Historically, Clemson owns Ohio State. The Tigers are undefeated in three appearances against the Buckeyes, starting with a 17-15 victory in the 1978 Gator Bowl, which marked the end of notorious hothead Woody Hayes’ storied coaching career when he punched a Clemson player who was running out of bounds. Clemson prevailed 40-35 in the 2014 Orange Bowl. And when the 2016 Buckeyes controversially snuck into the playoff at the expense of Big Ten champion Penn State, they were trounced 31-0 by Deshaun Watson and the eventual champion Tigers in the Fiesta.

This year’s seniors were freshmen back then, so they’ll surely have revenge on the mind when they take the field Saturday. Much will depend on their ability to let the rivalry’s history psych them up rather than psych them out. Same goes for undefeated first-year head coach Day, who has thus far seemed impervious to pressure but now must square off against Swinney, his most formidable adversary yet. Speaking of which…

2. Which coach can more effectively play the “nobody believes in us” card?

Swinney has repeatedly complained that Clemson is being ignored this season. Once the playoff was set, he pointed out to his players that few teams have started the season at No. 1, gone undefeated, yet somehow dropped two spots in the rankings. Given that he’s trotting out the same core group of players that won the championship last year — including the elite offensive trio of Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne and Tee Higgins, plus first-team All American linebacker Isaiah Simmons — maybe he has a point?

On the other hand, Clemson is a two-point favorite in the Fiesta despite being the lower seed, which suggests that, actually, quite a few people believe in them and it’s the Buckeyes who are being disrespected. Ohio State notched resounding victories over four top-25 teams, including No. 8 Wisconsin twice, and was the most dominant team in college football from start to finish, yet they aren’t even favored in their bowl game? It’s a point Day is surely making to his players.

3. How much of a factor will Chase Young be?

Young, the junior defensive end whose pass-rushing and run-stuffing heroics have NFL scouts projecting him as a potential No. 1 draft pick this spring, had an undeniably great season. He set Ohio State’s single-season sack record with 16.5. He finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting, a rare achievement for a defensive player. He will almost certainly be the best player on the field this Saturday.

But ever since returning from a two-game suspension in mid-November, he hasn’t been the same electric presence. Some of that can be chalked up to extra attention from opposing offenses, sometimes in the form of uncalled holds. And of course, game-changing players can change the game simply by creating opportunities for their teammates to shine. Ohio State has won with and without “SportsCenter”-worthy highlights from Young, but if he can seize control of the game, the Buckeyes’ degree of difficulty will be reduced significantly.

4. Will the secondary meet their match?

Ohio State’s defensive backs are great — so great that most of them will probably be playing in the NFL next year, but also so great that they’ve rarely been tested this season. When they finally faced a gunslinger QB in Michigan’s Shea Patterson, they showed signs of weakness for the first time all year. Patterson drove the Wolverines downfield with ease for two early TDs, inspiring Fox provocateur Clay Travis to tweet that OSU’s secondary “isn’t good” and has been propped up by the Buckeyes’ front seven. “Curious how they’ll hold up in playoff against Joe Burrow or Trevor Lawrence,” Travis continued.

We’re about to find out! Lawrence and his receivers represent by far the most dangerous passing attack these DBs have faced. The central matchup will be between two presumptive first-round draft picks, Clemson’s Higgins and OSU’s Jeff Okudah. Higgins has eight touchdowns in his last three games, was named MVP of the ACC championship game and will have a massive chip on his shoulder after being snubbed for a bunch of other awards. For the record, OSU ended up locking down Michigan in the second half, and they’ll need to keep Higgins and friends similarly in check on Saturday.

5. Will Justin Fields be healthy?

Fields, who finished one spot above Young in the Heisman voting, sprained his MCL against Penn State on Nov. 23 and aggravated the injury a week later at Michigan. Against Wisconsin, he was clearly limited physically, prompting former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer to comment during Fox’s halftime broadcast that something wasn’t right with the superstar quarterback. He still ended up with 299 yards passing, 3 TDs and, most important, a win.

It helped that OSU’s receiving corps was catching everything and often picking up yards after the catch. It helped even more that running back J.K. Dobbins, who arguably deserved a Heisman more than Fields or Young, racked up 172 yards on 33 carries. But what would help most in the playoff semifinal is if Fields regained his mobility and created as many strategic headaches as possible for the Clemson defense. And if Fields goes down again? Buckeye fans can only hope his largely unproven backup Chris Chugunov has a little Cardale Jones in him.

Prediction: Ohio State 48, Clemson 41 (OT)