Ryan Day was relatively unknown in the college football world before he was named Ohio State’s interim head coach last fall when Urban Meyer was placed on leave while the university investigated whether he knew about domestic violence allegations against former assistant Zach Smith.
The Buckeyes went 3-0 without Meyer and Day was later named the legendary coach’s successor when he retired after the Rose Bowl in January. Fast forward to now, and there’s not much different about this Buckeyes’ team in terms of on-field production. The 40-year-old Day inherited a well-oiled machine in terms of culture and talent, with Heisman caliber players like Chase Young, J.K. Dobbins, and then he went out and snagged star quarterback Justin Fields from the transfer portal. Ohio State held on tight to the top College Football Playoff seed for two weeks leading up to Selection Sunday, but after needing a comeback to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, SEC champion LSU jumped them for the No. 1 spot. This means they get to face No. 3 Clemson in the semifinal.
The reigning national champion Tigers are in the playoff for the fifth consecutive year. Despite being criticized all year for a weak schedule, Clemson is considered to be the most dangerous team in this four-team field. In fact, the biggest storyline coming out of Saturday was the importance of getting to be No. 1 in order to avoid the Tigers in the semifinal. Last year, Clemson was best known for its filthy defensive line—three linemen were taken in the first round of the NFL draft—and Trevor Lawrence shredding Alabama in the national championship. This year, Lawrence is still a star with one of the best receiving corps in the country, and linebacker Isaiah Simmons emerged as their greatest defensive weapon.
Ironically, Ohio State and Clemson last met in the 2016 College Football Playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl. The Tigers, then led by QB Deshaun Watson, dominated the Buckeyes 31-0 and went onto beat Alabama in a title game rematch. This year, Ohio State and Clemson have two of the best offenses and defenses in the country and its unlikely we’ll see another blowout.
Storyline You’ll Get Tired Of
Did you know that Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence were the Nos. 1 and 2 prospects in the 2018 recruiting class? And that they’re both from Georgia? The players grew up 30 minutes away from each other with Lawrence from Cartersville and Fields from Kennesaw. There were debates back in high school about who was the better player and now we get to see them go head-to-head for the first time in college in a playoff semifinal.
Lawrence obviously has a year of playoff and national championship experience behind him, but don’t discount Fields. He holds one of the most impressive stats in the country this season, throwing 40 touchdowns to just one interception. While both guys lead two of the nation’s best offenses and have plenty of playmakers around them, they also have a challenge ahead in facing two of the toughest defenses (Clemson is ranked No. 1 and Ohio State is No. 2) they’ve seen all year.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
While everyone will rightfully be curious to see if the nation’s sack leader, Chase Young (16.5), can get past one of the best offensive lines (allowing 1.0 sacks per game) and pressure Lawrence, another matchup to look for is Ohio State’s secondary against Clemson’s assembly of elite receivers. Watch for top OSU cornerback Jeff Okudah against Tigers’ 6’4” wideouts Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. The two have combined to lead Clemson this year with 107 catches, 1,824 yards and 21 touchdowns. It will be a matchup of future first-round draft picks as the 6’1” Okudah, and his fellow DBs, like 6’0” Davon Arnette, try to keep those guys in check.
Does playoff experience matter? We’ll find out. Swinney has coached in five straight playoffs and nearly every one of his players have been in this situation before. Meanwhile, Ohio State hasn’t made a semifinal since 2016, which was the year it lost to Clemson 31-0, and Day will be coaching in his first CFP. It’s also worth noting that while the Buckeyes have either been the No. 1 or No. 2 team in every one of the selection committee’s rankings this year, Swinney has been playing the disrespect card with his team. On Selection Sunday, he pumped up his guys by reminding them that they started the season as the No. 1 team in the country, then dropped to fifth in the first playoff rankings despite being undefeated, and ultimately finished third. Never underestimate an angry team.
Both semifinals are great matchups, but this one pits two teams against each other who have truly dominated their opponents all year. In terms of point differential, Ohio State outscored teams by an average margin of 36.2 points per game while Clemson wasn’t far behind with 35.9 ppg. The other semifinal matchup between LSU and Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl has two of the best offenses in the country, but they also played in a lot of close games this year. In the Fiesta Bowl, it’s the ultimate power game on both sides of the ball with two impressive quarterbacks up against the country’s two strongest defenses. At this point, it’s hard to imagine either of these teams getting blown out. It’ll be a close game, with Clemson handing Ohio State its first loss of the year, 31-28.