Clemson-Ohio State Fiesta Bowl could be playoff era's best semifinal matchup

No. 2 Clemson's clash with No. 3 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl may represent the best semifinal matchup in the brief history of the College Football Playoff.
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It’s ridiculous to consider the history of something as embryonic as the College Football Playoff and start to discuss best-ofs, but no one is stopping us, so here we go. Clemson and Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl seems like a game that might be the best semifinal in the three years of this event’s existence.

Cue the chorus of throat-clearing from observers of Ohio State-Alabama in 2014. And we can admit their objections are valid enough, at least until this game is actually played. But the Buckeyes and the Tigers make for an enticingly snug matchup.

Both have playmaking quarterbacks. Both have stifling defenses. They are the second- and third-seeded teams in the playoff, the second- and third-ranked teams in the polls and the third-and fourth-ranked teams in Football Outsiders S&P+ metrics. It’s a very auspicious setup for drama and dangerously high blood pressure readings.

Points of interest

1. The line of scrimmage, when Ohio State’s offense meets Clemson’s defense

It’s mind-numbing to hear coaches drone on about how games are won or lost up front, but that may well be 100% true in the desert. How the Buckeyes hold up against the Tigers’ massive-but-athletic defensive linemen could determine their ability to stay in the game. Per Football Outsiders’ metrics after the regular season, Ohio State had the No. 1 offensive line in the country. Per those same metrics, Clemson had the No. 20 defensive line, but its top four guys (Christian Wilkins, Carlos Watkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell) combined for 40.5 tackles for loss and 68 quarterback pressures.

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2. Third downs

Another self-evident pressure point, but Clemson and Ohio State have been particularly spectacular at keeping drives alive or stymieing the other side’s ability to create offensive momentum. The Tigers rank fifth in the nation in third-down conversions (51.5%) and seventh in third-down defense (29.7%) allowed. Ohio State ranks 10th nationally in both categories, converting at 48.6% and holding foes to 30.8% efficiency on that down. If either team even comes close to approximating its third-down success on both sides of the ball so far, that team should be the one playing for the national title on Jan. 9.

3. The fate of J.T. Barrett

Will this be his final college game? Will it be the penultimate appearance of Ohio State’s quarterback? Will it merely set the stage for a possible repeat playoff appearance in 2017? Barrett has an NFL choice to make, and it will be interesting to see how much, if at all, his effort against Clemson swings his emotions on the matter. Keep in mind, too, that an injury cost Barrett a chance to perform on this stage two seasons ago. We have to assume he’s intent on making up for lost time.


Burning question: Will experience matter?

Ohio State entered the year with just six returning starters. Clemson returned 12 starters from a roster with playoff experience. That’s a pretty cavernous difference between these two teams, even if we can fairly conclude that the talent is comparable. The Tigers competed for a national championship in this very venue in January. Perhaps familiarity or comfort go out the window as soon as the opening kickoff sails into the air. There’s certainly an argument for that. But Clemson has reference points for this moment that Ohio State does not.

X-factor: Wayne Gallman

Clemson’s tailback was a 1,000-yard rusher again this season but surpassed the 100-yard mark in just five games. Still, it appears the Tigers need their 210-pound junior to assert himself in big games, which he has a tendency to do. Gallman had 123 yards at Auburn in the season opener, 110 against Louisville and 82 yards and two touchdowns at Florida State in what were pretty clearly the Tigers’ three biggest victories. He’s essential to maintaining balance against another formidable defense.

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Statistically speaking: Ohio State’s school-record seven interceptions returned for touchdowns

The Buckeyes lead the nation in pass efficiency defense (91.43) and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson threw 15 interceptions this fall. Watson is, in reality, only fractionally more mistake-prone than he was a year ago; he tossed 13 picks in 491 attempts in 2015 versus the 15 in 487 passes this year. But Ohio State is equipped to goad Clemson’s Heisman Trophy finalist into mistakes he can’t afford to make.

Final analysis

Forgive the awkwardness or outright inappropriateness of the metaphor, given the locale, but: The sledding should be tough for both sides in the desert. Nothing suggests either offense will be able to assert itself consistently. Putting points on the board will be a matter of individual players and remarkable individual efforts, and on both sides of the ball, Clemson seems to have a slight edge in personnel capable of doing just that. Dare we hope for the most dramatic game we’ve seen in the CFP era?

The pick: Clemson 27, Ohio State 23