Who's Got the Edge: A Head-to-Head Breakdown of Ohio State and Clemson's Ultra-Talented Position Groups

By Andrew Ellis on December 26, 2019 at 3:05 pm
Two of America's top tailbacks will be on display in Glendale.
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The holiday is over and the Fiesta Bowl is now just two short days away. We've spent the bulk of the last few weeks covering all the different angles to this playoff semifinal with a little bit of the early signing period sprinkled in

We've looked at some of the key storylines including Clemson trying to contain J.K. Dobbins, Fairfield, Ohio native Jackson Carman versus Chase Young, and some veteran Buckeyes looking to get even after the 31-0 defeat back in 2016.

Clemson will present a challenge unlike what Ohio State has seen this year, and the Buckeyes will certainly do the same for the ACC champions. Today we're looking at both teams' units to get a feel for who has the advantage at each spot. 

Quarterback • Edge: Clemson

Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence should be the Heisman frontrunners for the 2020 season, and this matchup will without question feature two of the country's very best. The duo went back and forth for the No. 1 prospect ranking in the 2018 recruiting class, and they've taken entirely different paths to stardom. 

Fields is more of a threat with his legs, but Lawrence has some impressive athleticism for a 6-foot-6, 220-pounder. This one honestly may be too close to call, but on Tuesday Justin Fields said he's only about 80-85 percent healthy after undergoing treatment on his knee, and that has to be at least a slight concern for Ryan Day and the Ohio State staff.

Running Back • Edge: PUSH

Much like the quarterbacks, this is a matchup of two of the country's best in J.K. Dobbins and Travis Etienne. Dobbins has 1,829 yards and 20 touchdowns on the season while averaging 6.5 per attempt. Etienne has 1,500 yards, 17 scores, and is averaging an absurd 8.2 yards per carry. 

I think it's fair to say Etienne is the bigger home-run hitter, but when Dobbins is rolling, the Buckeyes can hit the opposition with chunk plays over and over again. If you want to look at the guys who spell the starters, Master Teague and Lyn-J Dixon have had similar seasons. Teague has 780 yards and is averaging 6.1 per carry while Dixon has 619 and the same average. 

Pass-Catchers • Edge: Clemson

I'm giving the edge to Clemson here since the Tigers have two all-world guys that will eventually be drafted in the first round, but I believe this is closer than most seem to think. Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross are both 6-foot-4 and 200+ pounds. Higgins has already topped 1,000 yards and has 13 touchdowns on the season. They're big, physical wideouts that will undoubtedly present the greatest challenge yet to Ohio State's talented secondary. 

The Buckeyes spread the ball around a bit more and don't have anyone with the sheer physical prowess of the Clemson duo. Chris Olave has been great, K.J. Hill is now the team's all-time receptions leader, Binjimen Victor flashes at times, and Garrett Wilson is a star in the making. Neither team uses the tight ends all that regularly but both Dobbins and Etienne are factors in the passing games. 

Offensive Line • Edge: Ohio State

Let's get to the elephant in the room right away: Ohio State's offensive line has allowed 31 sacks on the season. That's 2.39 sacks per game which ranks No. 94 in the country. There's no question that Justin Fields has held onto the ball a little too long at times, but that's just too many sacks for a playoff team to allow. 

So what about the Tigers' offensive line? It features four seniors (plus sophomore Jackson Carman) and has allowed just 13 sacks on the season. Left guard John Simpson is a consensus first-team All-American and will present a major challenge to the Ohio State defense. 

It's absolutely worth noting that Texas A&M was the top defense Clemson faced all season, and the Aggies are ranked No. 31 nationally. As a point of reference, Ohio State has faced five defenses ranked inside the top-30. The Tigers have a ton of experience here, but I'm giving the slight edge to the Buckeyes, and it's mostly due to the run blocking and superb play along the interior part of the line. 

Defensive Line • Edge: Ohio State

Clemson led the country with 54 sacks in 2018, but it's understandable that the defensive line has taken a step back after losing four starters to this year's NFL Draft (including three first-rounders). Chase Young and the Buckeyes hold that honor for this season with 51 sacks in 13 games. 

There's been a drop-off for Clemson up front, but it hasn't been as great as one might think. True freshman tackle Tyler Davis has been a starter all season long and is second on the team with 5.5 sacks. The Tigers also have some nice depth along the edge with a number of capable guys seeing action at defensive end. 

The edge here goes to Ohio State, but it's pretty close thanks to some strong depth up front for Clemson. Brent Venables doesn't have anyone as disruptive as Chase Young, and Ohio State's play along the interior has also been solid.

Linebackers • Edge: Clemson

Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons is a hybrid type of defender who's also one of the fastest players on the team. He will be one of the most talented players on the field on Saturday and is the main reason the Tigers get the edge at this position. He leads the team in tackles with 58, which includes 14.5 tackles for loss and a team-high seven sacks. 

Malik Harrison has been rock solid for the Buckeyes with 44 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 16 tackles for loss. Pete Werner and Tuf Borland have both improved their play this season while Baron Browning has flashed at times as well. Clemson has the best player at the position and we're giving them the edge, but it's not all that wide by any means.

Defensive Backs • Edge: Ohio State 

We are all well aware of Ohio State's talent in the secondary. Jeff Hafley has been able to play around with two likely first-round corners in Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade. Damon Arnette has also upped his game in a big way despite playing with a cast for much of the season. The Buckeyes have had just one safety on the field for a lot of the time, and Jordan Fuller has been solid in his senior season as well. 

Clemson has NFL players in cornerback A.J. Terrell and safety K'Von Wallace, but Terrell is the best player in the secondary. Safety Tanner Muse has been picked on at times, so that's a matchup Ohio State may look to exploit. The Tigers' pass defense is No. 1 in America with the Buckeyes on their tails at No. 2. We're giving the edge to Ohio State, however.

Special Teams • Edge: Ohio State

The Buckeyes have the special teams edge even if we all still tend to hold our breath when fielding a punt. Blake Haubeil has hit on 83.3 percent of his field goals while Clemson sophomore B.T. Potter is connecting on just 63.2 percent. Clemson punter Will Spiers has also had his struggles in 2019, though his average (42.5) isn't far off from Dru Chrisman's (44.1).

Coaching • Edge: Clemson

Ryan Day has been phenomenal and the work Jeff Hafley, Al Washington, and Greg Mattison have done cannot be overstated. The defensive turnaround has been a sight to behold, and the Buckeyes have been humming all season on offense as well. 

I'm not a huge fan of giving someone the advantage simply because they've been there before, but this is Dabo Swinney's fifth-straight appearance in the College Football Playoff. Clemson has won two of the last three titles and its staff – led by Brent Venables and his exotic blitz packages – is one of the best in the country. These are two fantastic coaching staffs, but we're giving the edge to the Tigers.

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