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Sugar Bowl Preview: Will Clemson-Ohio State Rematch Have a Familiar Ending?

NEW ORLEANS — Who would have guessed that Ohio State and Clemson would meet in a College Football Playoff semifinal? They’ve only done that three times in the last five seasons. It hasn’t worked out for the Buckeyes, who lost last year’s meeting 29–23 after blowing an early 16–0 lead and dropped a 31–0 rout to the Tigers in the 2016 semifinal.

In fact, Clemson has won all four meetings with Ohio State in the series history, winning the Orange Bowl, 40–35, in 2013 and claiming a two-point Gator Bowl win in 1978. The Tiger is squarely on the Buckeyes’ backs. And to get it off, they will need a whale of a game from QB Justin Fields and an electric performance from twin tailbacks Trey Sermon and Master Teague. They’re a one-two punch that could give Clemson DC Brent Venables fits in the same way that Fields and RB J.K. Dobbins did last season (Ohio State had 516 yards, outgaining Clemson by 99 yards).

It doesn’t get much more glamorous than the quarterback–running back matchup of Fields and Teague vs. Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne. Good luck to the defenses!

Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence runs vs Ohio State last season

Storyline you’re already tired of

Ohio State shouldn’t be here. If you haven’t heard (you have), the Buckeyes only played six games this season, leapfrogged a 10–1 Notre Dame in the seeding and coasted into the playoff in front of squads like 8–1 Texas A&M and 9–0 Cincinnati. Oh, and Dabo Swinney, a voter in the coaches poll, ranked the Buckeyes No. 11 in his most recent top 25. The nerve!

If there’s a more tired story surrounding the College Football Playoff, we haven’t noticed. That’s not saying it shouldn’t be a story. But we’re at the end of our rope—it’s time to move on.

Key matchup to watch

Lawrence, Etienne and Amari Rodgers vs. an Ohio State secondary that is giving up gobs of yards. The Buckeyes allowed 491 yards passing to Indiana, 281 to Penn State and 224 to a Northwestern team that isn’t known for the longball. They rank 104th nationally as a pass defense, and through six games, the unit has allowed 21 competitions of 20 yards or more—or roughly four a game.

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That sound you heard is Lawrence & Co. sharpening their knives.

Underrated X-factor

Tony Elliott’s absence. In his sixth year as Clemson’s offensive coordinator and play-caller, Elliott will miss the Sugar Bowl after registering a positive COVID-19 test this week. The Tigers are likely to lean on quarterbacks coach and pass-game coordinator Brandon Streeter to call plays, and don’t forget that head coach Dabo Swinney is an offensive-minded guy who has a big hand in the unit. 

Clemson wins if it...

Can corral Ohio State’s rushing attack, something it failed to do a year ago (Dobbins had 174 yards) despite eeking out a comeback win. The Buckeyes’ duo of Teague and Sermon, running behind an elite offensive line, are averaging 275 yards a game on the ground. That’s not even the most impressive stat. They’re at six yards a carry—third in the nation.

Ohio State wins if it…

Doesn’t allow more than 250 yards passing to Lawrence. Easier said than done, right? Lawrence has broken that passing mark in six of nine games this season. The Tigers have lots of ways to beat you, but Lawrence is the straw that stirs their drink. A less-than-prolific day for him bodes well for the Buckeyes, which can score in bunches on the offensive side.

What we think happens

Ohio State isn’t catching the Tigers at the best time. They recently dismantled the playoff No. 4 seed, Notre Dame, the only team to beat Clemson this season. Remember, the Tigers are undefeated with Lawrence at QB. They’ll remain that way, en route to another dance with Alabama in Miami Gardens.

Clemson 37, Ohio State 24

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