For the first time in the three-year history of the College Football Playoff, there’s a national semifinalist that’s not a conference champion. It’s No. 3 Ohio State of the Big Ten, a school that didn’t even win its own division. But it’s hard to argue against the Buckeyes being one of the nation’s four best teams. They face ACC champion and No. 2 Clemson on New Year’s Eve in the College Football Playoff national semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl, with the winner likely taking on No. 1 Alabama for the national championship.
Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Clemson Tigers Point spread: Buckeyes -3.5 Date: Saturday, Dec. 31, 7 p.m. ET Location: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
Ohio State Buckeyes
It’s a credit to Coach Urban Meyer that Ohio State (11-1) is in the playoff for the second time in three years considering the Buckeyes brought back just six starters off last year’s team, the fewest of any school in the country. OSU’s only loss was a bit of a fluke 24-21 defeat at Penn State on Oct. 22 on a late blocked field goal returned for a touchdown by the Nittany Lions.
Lions fans are still howling that Penn State not only beat Ohio State but won the Big Ten title and yet didn’t get into the playoff. But PSU also was clobbered by Michigan and lost to a mediocre Pittsburgh team out of conference. Ohio State, meanwhile, got a stellar non-conference win at eventual Big 12 champion Oklahoma back in September and beat the same Michigan team that destroyed Penn State in perhaps the game of the year on Nov. 26.
One of OSU’s few returning starters is quarterback J.T. Barrett, and he had a great season in passing for 2,428 yards and 24 touchdowns while rushing for 847 yards and nine scores. The Buckeyes also have one of the most versatile offensive weapons in college football in receiver/running back Curtis Samuel. He scored the double-overtime winning touchdown against Michigan and finished the season with 704 yards rushing and eight scores and 822 yards receiving and seven more touchdowns.
Ohio State of course won the first College Football Playoff in the 2014 season with upsets over Alabama and then Oregon. Barrett was the team’s star quarterback that season but he missed the playoff due to injury. Cardale Jones and Ezekiel Elliott, now the NFL Rookie of the Year favorite with the Dallas Cowboys, carried the Buckeyes in the playoff. OSU just missed last year’s playoff thanks to a last-second home loss to Michigan State late in the regular season.
Clemson (12-1) repeated as the ACC champion this year behind quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is a Heisman finalist for a second straight season. He and a few other key players have already announced their intentions to declare early for the NFL Draft, so the playoff is the end of an era at the school.
Watson is the first ACC player to be a two-time Heisman finalist. For the season, Watson has thrown for 3,914 yards and 37 touchdowns. He ranks fourth in the nation in completions (329), fifth in touchdown passes and his TD passes are a Clemson season record and second in ACC history behind the 40 Florida State’s Jameis Winston had when he won the Heisman in 2013. Watson has added 526 yards rushing and six scores. He can win games by himself.
No question the Tigers deserve to be in the playoff, but they did play with fire often this season. Clemson had six wins by a touchdown or less, including by just six over Troy and getting very fortunate (lucky as heck if being honest) to force overtime in a 24-17 OT win over NC State. The Tigers’ lone loss was a 43-42 home defeat to Pittsburgh, but they clinched a second straight playoff spot with a 42-35 win over Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game. Watson is the first Clemson QB to lead the Tigers to back-to-back conference crowns since the late 1980s.
Last season, Clemson beat Oklahoma in the national semifinals before losing to Alabama in the title game shootout, 45-40. Watson was magnificent in both games. That Tide loss was in the same building as this Fiesta Bowl. The Tigers are 2-0 all-time against Ohio State. The teams met in the Orange Bowl following the 2013 season and Clemson won 40-35 behind 505 yards of total offense from quarterback Tajh Boyd.
Fiesta Bowl Prediction
While the Washington-Alabama Peach Bowl could be a defensive battle, this figures to be high scoring. Ohio State is ninth nationally in scoring offense at 42.7 points per game and Clemson isn’t far behind at 40.2 ppg. These teams are a lot alike. But while Barrett is an excellent player, Watson is a generational talent. He leads all FBS quarterbacks since Nov. 1 in touchdowns (20) and yards (1,784) while completing 74 percent of his throws. Take the points. Don’t worry OSU fans, your young team will likely be back in the playoff next season.