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SQ College Football Playoff Semifinal Preview: PlayStation Fiesta Bowl

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

It’s come down to this. The winner goes on to play for the National Championship. Who will it be?

It has come down to this: the final four remaining teams competing for a national championship are about to take center stage. It’s been a long road getting to this point, and all four teams are ready to make the final push. The second of the College Football Playoff games will be played in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl between Clemson and Ohio State. The game will be played Dec. 31 at 7 PM, and you can catch the game on ESPN.

Storylines Heading Into the Game

Snubbed Once More - For the second season in a row, Deshaun Watson finished in the top-three of the Heisman trophy. Last season, in Clemson’s eventual run to the national championship game, Watson finished third behind a pair of running backs in winner Derrick Henry and second-place finisher Christian McCaffrey. This season, the award for the nation’s top player went to Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, whom Watson outplayed in their head-to-head duel. Did Watson deserve the Heisman over Jackson? That’s still up for debate, but he did best the winner in five passing categories including completion percentage, passing yards, passing touchdowns, passer rating, and passing yards per game.

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Urban Legend - There’s no question that Urban Meyer has become one of the best coaches in college football. At this point, there’s probably only one man who stands in front of him, Nick Saban. However, if Meyer wins this game, he’ll have a chance to do something that no coach has ever done in FBS history. After winning his last national championship a couple years ago, Urban became the second coach along with Saban to have won a national title at two different schools. But if he were to win another championship, he would become the only coach to win a pair of titles at two different schools. 

Should They Even Be Here? - When Ohio State was selected to play in the College Football Playoff this season, the decision didn’t sit well with some fans. These fans are the ones who believe that in order to be one of the top-four teams in the country, a conference championship should be a requirement. With Ohio State having lost to eventual Big Ten champion Penn State, some thought that the fourth slot should’ve gone to the Nittany Lions. However, there’s no question that the Buckeyes deserved this spot over Penn State.


The Buckeyes won seven of their games in blowout fashion (victories by 21 or more points), beating opponents in those games by an average margin of 47 points. It just so happened that the team’s remaining five games were decided by one possession. Ohio State finished 4-1 in games decided by one touchdown or less, beating teams like Michigan and Wisconsin in the process. Meanwhile, Penn State suffered a blowout loss to Michigan and lost in heartbreaking fashion to Pittsburgh. When comparing the two aside from the head-to-head contest, it’s no question that the Buckeyes are the better team. 

Key Stats

164.5 - Ohio State lost six players to NFL Draft in May, but you wouldn’t be able to tell with how dominant the unit has remained. One of the areas the defense has dominated in is pass defense, surrendering just 164.5 yards per game. The Buckeyes have held opponents to just a 47.3 mark in completion percentage, with only Michigan completing more than 60% of passes against the team.

Ohio State had one of the best ball-hawking secondaries in the nation, picking off 19 passes and accounting for 68 passes defended. Defending Watson is a unique challenge within itself, but this defense has enough ability and experience to make it difficult for him to find his target.

31 - If there’s been one area of weakness for Ohio State this season it has been in the passing game, and in particular pass protection. The Buckeyes’ offensive line has struggled against dominant defensive lines such as the ones at Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin. In their matchups with those three teams, Ohio State allowed a total of 31 tackles for loss, compared to just 24 tackles for loss allowed against their other nine opponents.

Clemson offers a similar type of dominant line that’s on par with Michigan. The Tigers rank third in the nation with 112 tackles for loss on the season, and have three linemen that have combined for 31.5 of those. There’s no question that QB J.T. Barrett will have to keep a short internal clock in order to get the ball out on time.


27 - In total the Tigers have six receivers that have caught at least 27 passes from Watson this season. Watson is clearly one of the best passers in the college game, and this stat shows it. Although he has his favorite receiver in Mike Williams, Watson has spread the ball out well throughout his receivers. Ohio State needs to be careful if it’s going to try and double cover Williams because Watson has five other guys he’s proven that he’s not afraid to go to. 

Key Players

Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson - To this point, this article has focused mostly on the performance of Watson under center. And while Watson’s performance is crucial to the success of Clemson in this game, the offense will struggle if Wayne Gallman can’t get going. Gallman needs to be the complementary piece he’s shown he can be when the offense wants to run the read-option or play-action passes.

The junior faced seven teams that finished with top-30 rush defenses, and came away with mixed results. In two games against top-10 defenses Boston College and Louisville, he totaled 109 and 110 yards, respectively. But against Troy and Pitt, he ran for 34 yards and 36 yards, respectively. Gallman has since improved over his final three games, averaging 110 yards, while reaching pay dirt four times.


Why is his performance important in this game? Just look at the one-possession games Ohio State has been in. In all but one game this season Ohio State has allowed over 100 yards rushing, while giving up over five yards per carry in three of those contests. It’s clear to see that if Gallman can get going on the ground, then that’s going to give Clemson its best chance at winning.

Ohio State Rush Defense Stats in One Possession Games

Opponent
Opponent Rushing Yards 
Yards Per Carry
Result
Wisconsin
236
5.13
W 30-23
Penn State
122 
3.30
L 24-21
Northwestern
148 
5.10
W 24-20
Michigan State
207
5.91
W 17-16
Michigan
91
2.12
W 30-27


Ohio State’s Offensive Line - Ohio State has the defense that can limit the damage that Clemson’s offense can do, but it means nothing if their own offense can’t get going. The Buckeyes have plenty of weapons with Barrett, do-it-all man Curtis Samuel, and running back Mike Weber. And while they can put up points in a hurry, the production can be easily slowed by the performance of the offensive line. We’ve already alluded to how Clemson’s defensive front can be disruptive, racking up 112 tackles for loss. So what can Ohio State do to alleviate the pressure, and help out the o-line a little bit?

Well, for one, it starts with Barrett and his decision making. Before the season started, the coaching staff worked with the signal caller on this very same issue. Through their work, they were able to come up with a window of time in which he needs to get rid of the ball in order for him to be the most successful. That number is 2.7 seconds. With that being said, look for Ohio State to work more in the short passing game with bubble screens and hitches to take advantage of the team speed and the athletes they have.

Why Clemson Wins

Clemson is one of the most complete teams in the nation, and this game will show it. It starts on offense with arguably the best quarterback in the country in Watson. The Buckeyes haven’t seen anyone like him this season, and the closest they’ve gotten is Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (without a talented Dede Westbrook). He’s got a challenge with this talented secondary, but with a good enough effort from Gallman in the run game, it should keep the defense honest. If Gallman has a decent day on the ground, it will also open things up for Watson on the ground, where he can be just as dangerous.


Moving over to the defensive side of the ball, Clemson is just as good. The key for the Tigers is up front, and getting pressure on Barrett. Barrett has really struggled over the past two games, completing just 46% of his passes for 210 yards and one touchdown. If the Tigers can collapse the pocket and make Barrett rely on his arm, it’s their game to lose. Over the past three games Clemson has done a great job of getting into the backfield sacking the quarterback 11 times, adding on 24 tackles for loss, and hurrying the QB five times. 

Why Ohio State Wins

Ohio State can win this game if it finds balance on offense. Of course, the success of the offense comes down to the play of the offensive line. The line does a great job of opening up enough holes in the run game, allowing its runners to average 5.54 yards per carry this season. But, it has struggled in keeping defenders away from Barrett on pass plays. Right tackle Isaiah Prince has been the root of the problem for the line (Prince allowed 2.5 sacks against Michigan), but the coaching staff has worked tirelessly to help shore up the issue

The balance of the offense also hinges on Barrett’s ability in the passing game. Barrett has to make smart decisions and be on time with the ball. If he can get the ball to his play-makers, they can do the rest, and pick up a ton of yards. As for the run game, the offense is most effective when Samuel and Weber split carries.


On defense, the Buckeyes have to get to Watson. The defensive front has to finish plays, and sack Watson or at least force him to throw the ball before he wants to. Watson becomes dangerous when he has time to throw the ball since he has so many different options. Watson has a great arm and can make some amazing throws, but at times he has made really bad decisions or tried to fit the ball into impossible windows. There’s a reason why he’s thrown 15 interceptions this season. The Buckeyes’ secondary has a knack for picking off passes, and also has one for returning them to the endzone. Capitalizing on Watson’s mistakes is a must in this game.

Prediction

The College Football Playoff is now in its third season, and both of these teams have now been in the final four twice. Ohio State is the only one of the pair to win a national title in this new era, but Clemson looks to change that this season.

The Tigers are arguably the hotter team coming into this game, winners of their last three games. They decisively beat both Wake Forest and South Carolina by a combined margin of 71 points, while also claiming a second straight ACC title with a victory over Virginia Tech. On the other hand, Ohio State comes into this game limping after surviving a 17-16 win over Michigan State and getting a gift of a good fourth down spot against Michigan in a 30-27 OT win.

Overall, this should be one of the best matchups to watch this season. Clemson has the edge as it has the better quarterback and better defensive line. Watson has proven time and time again why he has finished in the top-three of the Heisman voting for two consecutive seasons, while also winning the Davey O’Brien Award in both seasons. Ohio State has a good secondary, but Watson’s ability to find his second and third options is what will lead to his success in this game. 

Clemson’s defensive line will prove to be too much for Ohio State, beating the Buckeyes up front and causing Barrett to make mistakes. The run game will get Ohio State out of trouble, but it won’t be enough to single-handedly beat Clemson. Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins will control the game up front, making Barrett uncomfortable all game. That will lead to poor decisions, taken advantage of by a Clemson secondary that has accumulated 18 interceptions this season. Urban Meyer will keep his team in this game, but Clemson will prove to be too much.

Clemson Wins 28-24

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

SQuiz
Besides Nick Saban, what other coach has won a national championship at two different schools?
Created 12/28/16
  1. Les Miles
  2. Urban Meyer
  3. Chip Kelly
  4. Jimbo Fisher

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