8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Clemson -7.5, Over/Under: 66.5
As we (FINALLY) turn the page on 2020, familiar foes meet once again as the (3) Ohio State Buckeyes and (2) Clemson Tigers face off in the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive year, this time from the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Louisiana. If this rematch is nearly as good as it’s predecessor then we should be in for quite a show, though Ohio State (6-0,6-0 in Big Ten) will hope for a different outcome following that 29-23 defeat, with their campaign falling just one game short of reaching the primary objective. It was a game of missed opportunities for the Buckeyes, who dominated the affair throughout the First Half only to settle for three field goals en route to building up a 16-0 lead. Unfortunately, their opponent would eventually get things rolling, running off twenty-one unanswered points to take a 21-16 lead heading into the final period of play. From there, (Quarterback) Justin Fields (72.6%, 1,521 YDS, 9.3 Y/A, 15 TD, 5 INT, 174.6 RATE) would find (Receiver) Chris Olave (36 REC, 528 YDS, 14.7 Y/R, 5 TD) twenty-three yards downfield to retake the lead early in the Fourth Quarter, but Clemson would punch right back with the go-ahead score (and two-point conversion). Fields would have an opportunity late to tie the game, only to see his last-gasp effort fall short with an interception in the End Zone. Again, the contest could be summed up largely by missed opportunities for Ryan Day’s charges, who in addition to settling for early field goals were wasteful in possession, turning the football over on two occasions and penalized eight times for a loss of seventy-seven yards despite racking up a sizeable 516 yards of offense, rushing for 196 on thirty-six carries. Fields completed 30-of-46 passes for 320 yards a touchdown and the two interceptions, but wasn’t much of a factor in the run game, rushing for just thirteen yards on fourteen carries as he was sacked four times. A knee injury slowed him down quite a bit towards the end of last season, which was very apparent in the Playoff, as he struggled stepping into his throws with many passes sailing above their intended target. Fast-forward a year and history may be repeating itself; the Junior once again comes into this meeting with Clemson far from healthy, this time hampered by a sprained thumb on his throwing hand, which caused all kinds of issues for him in the Big Ten Championship against (15) Northwestern (more on that affair shortly). The Buckeyes enter the Playoff in a different place then they did a year ago, having only played six games thus far thanks to the postponement of the Big Ten season due to COVID-19, and a number of their games canceled due to the outbreak. Day himself even tested positive for the virus, which led to their annual rivalry with bitter rival, Michigan, being canceled as well. This of course, led to a bit of controversy; with Ohio State having only played five games at the conclusion of the Regular Season, they had failed to meet the requirement of games outlined by the league (6) to be able to compete in the Conference Championship Game. Knowing that failing to compete in that affair would likely damage their candidacy for the looming Playoff, the Big Ten waived the eligibility rule, allowing the Buckeyes to participate. This legislation led to Clemson Head Coach, Dabo Swinney, doubling down on his previous statement that Ohio State was the eleventh-best team in the country, which is where he ranked them in the Coach’s Poll. Shots fired indeed.
When we last saw Ohio State, they managed to overcome an extremely slow start to edge Northwestern, 22-10, to claim their fourth consecutive Big Ten Championship, effectively booking their place in the Playoff in the process. Though it took the Buckeyes the better part of three quarters to finally get into the End Zone, they wouldn’t take their foot off the gas, as Day continued to place his side’s fate in the capable hands of (Tailback) Trey Sermon (84 CAR, 675 YDS, 8.0 Y/A, 3 TD), who ran his way into school history with a ridiculous 331 yards and two touchdowns on twenty-nine carries, shattering the Big Ten Championship Game record set by Ezekiel Elliott back in 2014 (220) and breaking the single-game school record previously owned by (Heisman-winner) Eddie George in 1995 (314). A transfer from Oklahoma, Sermon spent the majority of the campaign sharing carries with fellow Tailback, Master Teague (89 CAR, 449 YDS, 5.0 Y/A, 6 TD), averaging just 58.0 yards on 11.3 carries through the first four games. However, he exploded for 112 yards on ten attempts in the Regular Season Finale at Michigan State, and with Teague picking up a knock early on in the matchup with the Wildcats, he clearly seized the opportunity granted to him. And in the end, his team absolutely needed him; Ohio State could manage just six points for nearly three full periods of play, with Fields struggling mightily against Northwestern’s Defense, particularly with Olave sitting out the game due to illness, and that aforementioned sprained thumb compromising his touch when throwing the football. At the end of the day, the signal-caller completed just 12-of-27 passes for 114 yards and two interceptions. While Sermon carried the Offense, the Defense certainly did it’s part to take control of the game in the Second Half, as they shut out the West Division Champions and forced three turnovers. (Senior Linebacker) Justin Hilliard (17 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 FF, 2 FR, 1 INT, 1 PD) was Johnny on the spot, leading the Buckeyes with nine tackles (2 for loss), and interception and a recovered fumble, while his pressure of Wildcats’ Quarterback, Peyton Ramsey, led to another interception, this one courtesy of (Junior Safety) Josh Proctor (14 TKL, 1.0 TFL, 1 FR, 1 INT).
Meanwhile, appearing in their sixth consecutive Playoff is Clemson (10-1, 9-1 in ACC), who have designs on winning their third National Championship in five years. It’s really rather remarkable what Dabo Swinney has managed to build over the last decade, for the Tigers have evolved into a bonafide POWERHOUSE, winning ten or more games in ten consecutive seasons, including six consecutive ACC Championships and four appearances in the National Championship Game. Of course, they will be intent on righting the wrong of last year’s loss on that stage, as LSU embarrassed them en route to a 42-25 outcome from the Sugar Bowl, which is coincidentally the sight of tonight’s return to the Playoff. That defeat marked the lone blemish on the CV of (Junior Quarterback) Trevor Lawrence (69.2%, 2,753 YDS, 9.6 Y/A, 22 TD, 4 INT, 172.7 RATE), who very well my be named the recipient of the 2020 Heisman Memorial Trophy. All but certain to hear his name called first in the 2021 NFL Draft (should he choose to declare, of course), Lawrence has been on a revenge mission this season, particularly after contracting COVID-19 and missing two games during the middle of the schedule, which featured their only loss of the season, snapping the longest Regular Season winning streak in college football history at a staggering THIRTY-NINE games. In the three outings that have followed since his absence, Lawrence has been on FIRE completing 66.3% of his attempts for an average of 306.7 yards (9.7 Y/A), with five touchdowns and a pair of interceptions, while also factoring heavily into the rushing attack with 140 yards and three scores over that span. He’ll be looking to replicate the performance he had against Ohio State when he met them in last year’s National Semifinal as he led his side to a hard-fought 29-23 victory. As we stated earlier, Clemson started off slowly, but managed to bend without breaking as the repeatedly kept the Buckeyes out of the End Zone in the First Half, trailing by a manageable sixteen points. The reigning National Champions would cut that deficit to two before Halftime, following a virtuoso 67-yard touchdown run from their Quarterback, leaving a slew of defenders in his wake. Later on midway through the third period, Lawrence would find (Senior Tailback) Travis Etienne (202 TCH, 1,406 YDS, 7.0 Y/T, 15 TD) for a 53-yard score to take the lead before eventually retaking it for good via another score touchdown to his Tailback, this time for thirty-four yards. In the end, the signal-caller accounted for 366 total yards and three touchdowns, completing 18-of-33 passes, while Etienne added 134 yards from scrimmage and three scores of his own on just thirteen touches.
When we last saw Clemson, they reminded everyone just who wears the crown in the ACC, dumping (2) Notre Dame in the Conference Championship Game, 34-10. Following that 47-40 loss in their previous meeting, there were two MAJOR differences in this rematch; the first was contested at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend with Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina serving as the venue for this particular affair, and the second is the aforementioned Lawrence was healthy and active after missing that game due to testing positive for COVID-19. This one wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would lead you to believe, folks, for the Tigers were clearly the dominant side in this affair; after the Irish went ahead on an early 51-yard field goal followed by an interception of Lawrence, the five-time reigning league champions proceeded run off THIRTY-FOUR unanswered points. Lawrence, who of course missed the previous meeting with Notre Dame which was coincidentally their only loss of the season, was in rare form, completing 25-of-36 passes for 322 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while rushing for another ninety yards and a score. Big plays were the theme of the day, as the Heisman finalist found (Receiver) Amari Rodgers (69 REC, 966 YDS, 14.0 Y/R, 7 TD) for a 67-yard score late in the First Quarter, followed by a 33-yard strike to (Freshman Receiver) E.J. Williams (19 REC, 261 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 2 TD) on the following drive, and later ending the third period with a 34-yard jaunt into the End Zone. Oh, and Etienne capped the First Half with a 44-yard sprint to the house as well, the highlight of his 124-yard performance, which he only needed ten carries to achieve. Swinney clearly had his charges motivated in this one, as the Offense accounted for a staggering 541 total yards, including 219 on the ground on twenty-seven carries, while the Defense relegated the Irish to 263 yards, including a season-low forty-four via the run, with six sacks and four forced fumbles (though none were recovered).