Before each week's Ohio State game, Eleven Warriors catches up with a media member who covers the opposing team to get his or her perspective on the Buckeyes' upcoming opponent.
Brandon Rink, who covers Clemson for TigerNet.com, joins us for our Fiesta Bowl preview edition of Across The Field, as the Tigers get set to face Ohio State in a clash of 13-0 teams in the College Football Playoff semifinals on Saturday night.
13-0 (8-0 ACC)
ROSTER / SCHEDULE
8 P.M. – SATURDAY, DEC. 28
STATE FARM STADIUM
What's made the Tigers, who have won 28 straight games dating back to the start of the 2018 season, so consistent? Are they as good as their record indicates this season? Which Tigers could make a big impact on this week's game, and what do they need to do well to keep their winning streak going against the Buckeyes?
Rink's answers to all of those questions and more are below.
Q: Clemson hasn’t lost a game in two years, winning its last 28 straight games. What do you think has been the biggest key to the Tigers’ consistency?
Rink: Every team nationally has some kind of mantra about taking one game at a time but Dabo Swinney has proven to be a master motivator and he’s had his team up-and-ready for each contest in that run. You ask just about any Clemson Tiger about their weekly prep, and sure, they will give the usual plaudits about opponents, but foremost in their minds is playing Clemson – and the standard that’s been continually set and re-set with some big-time performances. And that even goes back to recruiting and how honed-in a tight Clemson coaching staff has been on finding the right fit to go among the top talents interested.
Q: Clemson fans seem to be very confident going into this game. Do you think that confidence stems more from what happened the last time Clemson played Ohio State, or what the Tigers have done over the past couple years?
It’s tough to have one without the other. There’s a fairly justified air of invincibility about this Clemson program right now. In the Tigers’ last time on this stage, they beat a media-proclaimed best-team-ever in Alabama by 28 points, after dominating a Playoff 3-seed in Notre Dame by 27. And a lot of those guys who played major roles in that are back on this team.
In Ohio State’s last time on this stage, Clemson fans saw that movie and Dabo Swinney said afterward on local radio that he could see that kind of game coming. I guess we’ll find out just how they really feel about this one sometime after the game clock hits zero on Saturday.
If I had to pick one, I would say the confidence is slightly more because of the overall program success – and especially with Trevor Lawrence as QB1. In games he’s started, Clemson has had one game within single-digits (UNC) and 21 wins by 20 or more points (out of 23 games, excluding his first start where he had a game-ending injury in the first half). Since that one close call, Clemson has won by 42 points per game and Lawrence hasn’t thrown an interception – after that was such a storyline early in the season – in the Tigers’ last 27 quarters.
Q: As dominant as Clemson has been this year, the Tigers haven’t played any top-ranked opponents this season. Do you think they are as good as their 13-0 record and statistics indicate, or are there still unknowns about this team because of their lack of elite competition?
Rink: This College Football Playoff will be fascinating because the three undefeated Power 5 teams have taken different paths to get here.
There’s little defense for the ACC. I saw a metric rating the ACC’s divisions ninth and tenth in the nation with each behind the AAC West. Clemson’s two SEC opponents in Texas A&M and South Carolina were mediocre-to-bad and each had the misfortune of playing at least four top-10 teams this season. They get points for attempting to schedule quality opponents. It just didn’t work out that way.
I don’t have any questions about the Clemson offense, however. The talent and execution is there to put up points on anybody and they have flat-out dominated lately.
I don’t have any questions about Brent Venables’ ability to draw up an effective scheme either, but the tests have been few for his group this year and Ohio State represents a major step up in competition. Clemson has used a largely veteran crew in the back seven to cut down on the big plays allowed last season and have been pretty stout against the run since some issues in the UNC game. This will be Clemson’s biggest test there and a chance to prove its strong metrics right in what was expected to be more of a rebuilding year.
Q: Where do you think Clemson could have the biggest advantage in this game, and where do you think Clemson could be most vulnerable?
Rink: Ohio State has proven to be strong against the run and the pass and it faces a Clemson offense that’s been efficient in both aspects as well. Big picture-wise, the experience for Clemson on offense and that same advantage for its coaches in this kind of game stands out the most to me.
He gets picked on a lot in analysis pieces but Virginia seemed to paint a bull’s-eye in the ACC Championship on Clemson safety Tanner Muse, who is a physical and effective defender most of the time but can get caught against the pass. I’ll be curious to see what Venables has in store with his DB personnel both against that and also trying to contain Ohio State’s ground game.
Q: Excluding Trevor Lawrence and Isaiah Simmons, who is one Clemson player on each side of the ball that you think will have a big impact on this game?
Rink: This is a big game for defensive tackle Tyler Davis, who’s stepped in as a true freshman to lead Clemson’s D-line in both tackles for loss (7) and sacks (4.5). The Tigers will try to rotate a bunch of bodies on the defensive line, and Davis has to be a disrupting factor to make plays and enable teammates to do the same.
On offense, Lawrence has a number of targets at his disposal but that’s not going to mean much if Ohio State’s D-line can pressure effectively and contain Travis Etienne. From a metrics standpoint, Clemson’s O-line has some pretty salty numbers but this will be by far its biggest test. So far, sophomore left tackle Jackson Carman has stepped in and the Tigers haven’t missed a beat after All-American Mitch Hyatt’s departure, but he will need a big performance Saturday.
Q: What do you see as the key to a Clemson victory, and how do you see it playing out?
Rink: For Clemson, it will be a lot of just trying to pick up where it left off down the stretch. Dabo Swinney’s group is plus-13 in turnover margin since Lawrence got the ship righted a quarter in at Louisville, averaging 53 points and allowing just nine per game.
If Clemson takes care of the ball and forces an Ohio State mistake or two, the Tigers’ balance on offense and arsenal of playmakers – plus Venables cooking up a scheme that contains the Buckeyes enough – sees Clemson through to a fourth title-game appearance in five seasons. With how consistent Swinney's team has been in these kind of games, I wouldn't expect anything less.