SCOTTSDALE, Arizona – While Saturday’s game between Ohio State and Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl appears to be just about evenly matched in most areas, one attribute in which the Tigers hold a clear advantage over the Buckeyes is big-game experience.
This week’s game will be Clemson’s eighth College Football Playoff game in a five-year span. Dabo Swinney has been Clemson’s head coach for all of those games, in which the Tigers have already won five playoff games. Every member of Clemson’s coaching staff has coached in at least two playoff games and won at least one national championship. So have the vast majority of Clemson’s players, and some of the Tigers’ seniors have already won two national titles and a playoff game against Ohio State – in 2016, when Clemson shut out the Buckeyes, 31-0.
Ryan Day, on the other hand, is coaching in his first College Football Playoff game. So are eight of his assistant coaches (though Greg Mattison, Kevin Wilson and Greg Studrawa all coached in BCS national championship games). None of Ohio State’s players have ever won a playoff game, and those who have played in the CFP only played in that 31-0 loss.
That makes this week’s game both an enormous test for a first-year head coach that is still unproven on the sport’s biggest stage, and an enormous opportunity for Day and his team to firmly prove how elite they are in a game against the team who has had more success than any other in the second half of the 2010s.
Clemson has played in more games and won more games than any other team since 2015, and that experience could help the Tigers on Saturday. While they haven’t faced any top-tier opponents this year, Swinney and his coaching staff know how to win big games from past experience, and so do most of their players, including Clemson starting quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who was the offensive MVP of last year’s national championship game.
The Tigers believe that experience can be to their benefit, but Swinney also said they can’t rely on it.
“I think that certainly experience is a great teacher, but it's a new team,” Swinney said after Clemson arrived in Arizona on Sunday. “We don't have a big senior class. And that's the only group that's been here (at the Fiesta Bowl). Most of these guys, it's a new experience for them. But we have been in a lot of big games. All of our true juniors and true sophomores have played in big games.”
Swinney said the Tigers treat every game as a big game, which is one reason why they’ve gone 68-4 over the last five seasons, including 28 straight wins. Years of competing in playoff games has helped Clemson figure out exactly what it takes to win games at that level, and they’ll look to draw from that once again this week – just as they have all season in getting to this point with a 13-0 record.
“We don't just get up for games like this,” said Clemson right tackle Tremayne Anchrum. “We treat games like this like we do Week 6, Week 7. The preparation may be different, but we keep the formula for excellence.”
Swinney: “This is a little different in that obviously you're away and it's a bowl site and different logistics and things like that. So our experience hopefully will help us just kind of navigate that. But at the end of the day, we got a routine that we believe in and we'll stick to it.”
Ohio State, seemingly, has had the same kind of approach all season. The Buckeyes have dominated their competition in Day’s first year as coach, winning all of their first 13 games by an average of more than 36 points. Even though Day hasn’t coached in a game of this magnitude, he’s expressed confidence that his team will be prepared for the big stage.
“Our guys see ourselves as being the best in the country,” Day said earlier this month. “The moment won't be too big for our guys. It's just a matter of keeping our emotions in check and just doing a good job of staying focused.”
Still, playing in a College Football Playoff game with a berth in the national championship game on the line will be a new experience for most of the Buckeyes, including some of the team’s biggest stars like starting quarterback Justin Fields, running back J.K. Dobbins, defensive end Chase Young, cornerback Jeff Okudah and wide receiver Chris Olave. They’re confident they’ll be up to the challenge, but it’s still a new challenge they have to face.
So far, though, Day and the 2019 Buckeyes have handled every new challenge that’s been thrown in their path, every game that’s been supposed to be “the biggest test of the year.” There’s little debate that this week’s game truly will be the biggest test of the year to date, but if they can win, one of the last remaining questions about Day as Ohio State’s head coach – whether he’s truly ready to beat the Swinneys and Nick Sabans of the world and compete for a national championship – will be answered.