SCOTTSDALE, Arizona – When they meet in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, on Saturday, Ohio State and Clemson will each be facing the best offense and defense that they’ve faced all season.
The statistics make that much apparent. Ohio State and Clemson’s offenses both rank in the top five nationally in points scored and yards gained per game, and the Buckeyes’ and Tigers’ defense each rank in the top three in the Football Bowl Subdivision in points and yards allowed per game. It’s hard to find a substantial weakness on either team.
What really stands out when watching both teams, though, is the elite speed they have on both sides of the ball, the game-changing playmakers and future NFL players that take the field each week in either scarlet and gray or orange and white. A level of athleticism and talent that neither team has faced in any of its 13 wins this season to date that will put both teams’ offenses and defenses to the test to see just how good they really are.
During Fiesta Bowl interview sessions at the Camelback Inn on Tuesday, just about every coach and player who was asked – from both teams – said the speed and talent they will face on Saturday surpasses anything they have seen all year.
“They look really fast on film,” Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons said of Ohio State. “They’re a team that doesn’t have a weak link. They’re strong in all 22 – not 11 positions, on both sides of the ball – so that really stands out, because you don’t come across teams like that too often.”
For Clemson, the jump in competition is probably more stark than it is for Ohio State. The Tigers haven’t faced a team all year that ranked higher than 24th in the final College Football Playoff rankings, and have had a decisive advantage on both offense and defense in just about every game they’ve played. They’ve dominated their opponents week in and week out, but they know Ohio State will present a greater challenge than anyone they’ve played all year.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables compared Ohio State’s offense to “Goliath,” and said the Buckeyes have the best quarterback, running back, wide receivers and offensive line that Clemson has faced all season. Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said there’s “no doubt” Ohio State’s defense is better than any the Tigers have played all year; he compared the Buckeyes to Alabama’s 2016 defense, which was on track to go down as one of college football’s best defenses ever until it gave up 511 yards and 35 points to Clemson in that season’s national championship game.
“Usually when you start breaking down a defense, you’re looking for a weakness, maybe a matchup advantage that you have. There’s no matchup advantages,” Elliott said. “They’re deep at every position, they got some of the most talented guys in the country.”
Q: Is Ohio State the best defense youve faced this year?— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) December 24, 2019
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott: No doubt. pic.twitter.com/l1qHF6Qzt3
Clemson safety Tanner Muse described Ohio State’s offense as “very good at every single position,” while quarterback Trevor Lawrence said Ohio State’s defense is “definitely the best” the Tigers have faced all season. Running back Travis Etienne said the Buckeyes’ speed and talent even stands out on special teams (one area in which Ohio State does appear to have an advantage on paper, as Clemson ranks 103rd nationally in SP+ rankings on special teams).
“Just watching them on kickoff, you can see how fast they get down the field,” Etienne said. “So that speed definitely stands out.”
“They’re a team that doesn’t have a weak link. They’re strong in all 22 – not 11 positions, on both sides of the ball – so that really stands out, because you don’t come across teams like that too often.”– Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons on Ohio State
All of that might sound like reason to believe that Clemson, even though it has won 28 straight games dating back to the start of the 2018 season, is at risk of being exposed on Saturday. There’s no question that Ohio State is a better team than anyone has played this season, which might allow the Buckeyes to expose weaknesses in the Tigers that no one else has.
The same can be said the other way around, though. The gap between Clemson and Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin – Ohio State’s last three opponents before the playoff, all of whom were in the top 14 of the final CFP rankings – isn’t as big as the gap between Ohio State and everyone the Tigers have played, but there’s still a significant difference, especially in regards to their ability to match up with the Buckeyes’ best athletes at key positions.
“It’s definitely different,” said Ohio State defensive end Chase Young. “They’re a top-notch program, top-notch team. Definitely the best team we’ve played thus far. So we’re just going to have to match that intensity, or make our intensity be even higher than theirs.”
Ohio State wide receiver Binjimen Victor said Clemson’s team speed “most definitely” stands out compared to the other teams the Buckeyes have played. Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said Clemson plays “as good of defense as anybody in the country.” Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said there’s “no question” Clemson has the best passing offense the Buckeyes have faced.
Lawrence, Etienne and wide receivers Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers give the Tigers a dangerous arsenal of offensive weapons that will test Ohio State’s linebackers and defensive backs in a way no other opponents’ skill-position players have yet this season. Ohio State’s offense has had a clear athleticism advantage over just about every defense it’s faced this year, but playmakers like Simmons, defensive end Xavier Thomas and cornerback A.J. Terrell give Clemson a chance to challenge the Buckeyes in a way no other defense has been able.
In most games this season, Ohio State and Clemson have been able to overwhelm their opponents with their talent, holding a clear advantage over their competition with their athleticism, power and all-around skill. In a game where elite athletes will be running all over the field no matter which units are on the field, the outcome will ultimately be determined by which team wins more matchups with technique and execution.
”Talent’s equated. Both teams are going to play really, really hard. Who executes better, who's more prepared and who has the right game plan is going to win the game,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said earlier this month.