The Clemson Tigers enter their fifth consecutive College Football Playoff in search of the program’s fourth national championship and with hopes of becoming the first repeat national champion in the CFP era.
The Tigers would become the first back-to-back champion since Alabama’s consecutive titles in BCS National Championship Games in 2011-12. The title would be Clemson’s third in four years, which would place the Tigers with the 2009-12 Alabama Crimson Tide and 1994-97 Nebraska Cornhuskers as the only FBS programs in the AP poll era to accomplish the feat.
Clemson entered the season as the nation’s No. 1 team in both polls for the first time in school history, a perch it held until the final week of September. Clemson would eventually drop as low as No. 4 in the AP Poll and No. 5 in the CFP listing before climbing back to No. 3, where it sits today in both major polls and in College Football Playoff seeding.
The Tigers became the first team since Alabama in 1966 to enter the year as the AP No. 1 and finish the regular season third or lower despite not losing a game.
Clemson bulldozed its way through the majority of its 2019 campaign, posting a 13-0 record for only the third time in school history (2015, 2018 and 2019). Clemson has outscored its opponents, 605-138, an average margin of 35.9 points per game, outpacing the school record of 35.3 established by Coach John Heisman’s squad in Clemson’s fifth year of football in 1900. Along the way, Clemson has collected a national-best 11 wins against Power Five opponents, and even with the inclusion of a one-point conference road win in September, Clemson won those 11 games against Power Five opponents by an average of 34.5 points.
Who to watch when Clemson has the ball?
Trevor Lawrence (QB): Lawrence, the first-team AllACC selection and Manning Award finalist who enters bowl season 28-0 at Clemson including a 24-0 record as a starter. The sophomore has completed 232-of-337 passes (68.8 percent) for 3,172 yards and a career-high 34 touchdowns with eight interceptions for a passer rating of 176.45.
Lawrence received criticism for interceptions early in the season, throwing his eighth of the season in the first quarter of Clemson’s Oct. 19 game at Louisville, when he threw two interceptions in the opening period.
Since the start of the second quarter of that game, Lawrence is 134-of-163 (82.2 percent) for 1,866 yards with 23 touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 224.9. He also has thrown 169 consecutive pass attempts without an interception, tying his own single-season school record of 169 set at the conclusion of last season
Travis Etienne: This season, Etienne became the ACC’s all-time career leader in rushing touchdowns (54), total touchdowns (57) and points by a non-kicker (348). He earned ACC Player of the Year honors for the second straight season, becoming the first running back to collect the award in back-to-back seasons in more than four decades (Mike Voight in 1975-76).
Etienne, whose snub from the Doak Walker Award finalist list was the subject of passionate discourse from Swinney in the local and national media, has rushed for 1,500 yards in 2019 on 182 carries with 17 rushing touchdowns. His growth in the passing game was a focus of his in the offseason as well, evidenced now by his third-place rank on the team in receptions (29) and adding 298 yards and two scores in that capacity.
Tee Higgins: Higgins enters the bowl season with eight touchdowns in his last three games, giving him 27 career touchdown receptions to tie DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins for the most in school history. Higgins’ 1,082 yards and 13 receiving touchdowns lead the Tigers this season on 52 receptions.
Who to watch when Ohio State has the ball:
Isaiah Simmons (LB): Simmons was named as the country’s top linebacker by becoming Clemson’s first Butkus Award winner in school history in 2019.
Simmons won ACC Defensive Player of the Year and was a finalist for the Bednarik, Nagurski and Lott IMPACT Trophy after posting 93 tackles, 14.0 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, seven pass breakups, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery through 13 games.
Tanner Muse (S): Muse is a vocal leader who was a Thorpe Award semifinalist and first-team All-ACC selection while leading Clemson with four interceptions.
Muse enters the 2019 bowl season with 229 career tackles (9.5 for loss), 15 passes broken up, 4.0 sacks, seven interceptions for 102 yards (including a 64-yard return for a touchdown), a forced fumble and a 63-yard fumble return for a touchdown in 1,748 snaps over 57 career games (37 starts).
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K'Von Wallace (S): Wallace, a third-team All-ACC pick, enters the 2019 bowl season credited with 159 career tackles (4.5 for loss), 20 passes broken up, five interceptions returned for 180 yards (including one returned for a touchdown), a sack and two forced fumbles in 1,724 snaps over 57 games (34 starts).
Preview and Prediction:
Though Ohio State enters the Fiesta Bowl with 924 all-time victories, second-most in FBS history, the Buckeyes remain winless in three all-time meetings with Clemson.
All three previous matchups have come in postseason play, including the 1978 Gator Bowl, 2014 Orange Bowl and 2016 Fiesta Bowl. This year's contest will be a rematch of the teams' most recent meeting in 2016 in Clemson's only previous Fiesta Bowl appearance.
Every meeting between the two programs has come with both squads ranked the top 20 in the AP Poll. This will mark the second straight time that the teams will meet with both squads in the top three.
But will the Tigers continue their run of recent success against the Buckeyes, or will the Buckeyes buck history and take home the Fiesta Bowl trophy and book their ticket to New Orleans for the College Football Playoff National Championship?
Zach Lentz: Clemson- 34 Ohio State- 20
Susan Lloyd: Clemson- 35. Ohio State- 17
"This will be the score late enough in the game for Chase Brice to play the last series. BT Potter won’t have to kick a field goal in the game- all touchdowns for the Tigers."
Brad Senkiw: Clemson-38 . Ohio State: 30
These are two really, really good teams and it'll be an extremely entertaining game. In games like this, we tend to overthink and overanalyze. I'm keeping it simple. Trevor Lawrence is playing better than almost anybody, and maybe as well as Joe Burrow right now. Justin Fields has had a tremendous season, but he hasn't been on this stage yet. Lawrence has proven himself here. I'll pick him to have the better game and lead Clemson to a victory in Glendale, Arizona."
Jeremy Styron: Clemson- 42. Ohio State- 27
Morgan Thomas: Clemson- 48 Ohio State- 34
"From an opponent standpoint, I buy into the fact that JK Dobbins will have a good game. I believe that Dobbins and Fields can combine for 4 touchdowns rushing the ball. However, I do not believe that Damon Arnette will be able to handle Tee Higgins in one on one coverage. If Ohio State decides to give him help then that would likely leave Justyn Ross one on one with Jeffery Okudah. Ross versus Okudah would be a matchup of the year, however, I have to give Ross the advantage given his size and the fact that Trevor Lawrence can put the ball anywhere he wants. Another reason for my confidence is that Hassin Haskins and Jonathan Taylor both were able to rush for over 6 yards per carry against Ohio State. The key for them was to run away from Chase Young. Clemson will first need to put Travis Etienne in an advantageous situation (away from Young) and then let Etienne break tackles on his way to another big night."
JP Priester: Clemson-34. Ohio State-24
"I feel like there are two things Clemson needs to do in this one to win. First, is slow down the Buckeyes running attack. Can't let Dobbins get going and them control the clock. Need to keep them off schedule, putting them in second and third-and-long. Keep Fields contained and make him beat them through the air. Second, the Tigers OL needs to give Etienne room to run. If they open holes and allow Etienne to get into the second level, he'll pick up chunks of yards at the time, in turn opening up the downfield passing game. Both things happen."
Connor Watson: Clemson-45. Ohio State- 35
"Ohio state getting a garbage time touchdown to make the score look a little better"