The time for talking is just about over as No. 2 Ohio State makes final preparations for tomorrow night's battle with No. 3 Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal.
Most national pundits have lined up behind Dabo Swinney's Tigers and Vegas oddsmakers also see Clemson as the slight favorite.
But all that matters is what happens on the field and with Ryan Day steering the ship, Justin Fields in the shotgun, J.K. Dobbins looking for running room and Chase Young rushing the passer, it's fine to be bullish on the Buckeyes.
Whether or not Ohio State can move the ball effectively on the ground will go a long way in determining the game’s outcome. Will the Buckeyes have success on the ground? If so, how will they do it? What kind of day do you envision for J.K. Dobbins and the offensive line in the run game?
Dan: I believe the Buckeyes will have success running the ball because I believe Ohio State's offensive line is at least slightly better at run blocking than Clemson's defensive line is at stopping the run. The Tigers' run defense is a top-10 ranked unit, but they haven't faced anyone like Dobbins and the Buckeyes' front five, and I believe Ohio State will be aggressive in trying to establish the run game early and wear the Tigers down. If the Buckeyes can do that, I think Dobbins can have a big day – just as he has in every big game Ohio State has played this season – while opening up opportunities for Justin Fields and the passing game. The one major question mark is whether Fields' knee will be healthy enough for him to be a significant threat as a runner, which could take away some of the Buckeyes' running-game effectiveness if he isn't.
Andrew: I see Ohio State putting up some numbers on the ground, but I’d be surprised if Dobbins has a prolific game like he did in Ann Arbor. I think Josh Myers and the interior line can get it done against a relatively inexperienced Tigers’ front. I’ll say Dobbins will fall just short of 100 yards and will score a touchdown or two. Justin Fields will certainly get some yardage on the ground as well. The Buckeye offensive line is actually one of the lesser concerns for me.
Andy: Ohio State’s run through Alabama and Oregon in 2014 set the blueprint for how this team will win its ninth national title. Ohio State ran for 281 vs. the Tide and 296 vs. the Ducks… which is a stark contrast to the putrid 88 yards of rushing versus Clemson in 2016. Riding an outstanding offensive line and the best running back in the country in J.K. Dobbins, I envision a similar gameplan Saturday. This isn’t the same Clemson defensive line of a year ago, and although they are talented, the Slobs have the advantage in the trenches and that makes all the difference. Dobbins pushes for another near-200-yard outing and a rejuvenated Fields runs just enough to keep the Tiger backfield honest.
Chase Young hasn’t been as dominant the last few games as opposing offensive coordinators have been more aggressive with double teams and chips. How will Clemson scheme against Young? Will it work? Who else along Ohio State’s defensive front do you expect to pick up some slack?
Andy: While I doubt we’ll see the triple-teams we chuckled about against Michigan, I have little doubt a couple of bodies will be used to neutralize Young as much as possible and give Lawrence enough time to get the ball out of his hands. He has a quick release anyway, but Young will cause enough havoc to give Ohio State’s interior lineman chances at making big plays like we saw them do in games where he was less “dominant” than he’d been in his first 9 games.
Andrew: Clemson’s offensive line is absolutely beatable, and I think Chase will cause some problems on Saturday night and will record a sack or two. The Tigers will undoubtedly double-team him from time to time and I’m sure there will be plenty of chipping, but Chase Young vs. Jackson Carman is a matchup that obviously favors Ohio State. DaVon Hamilton on the inside and someone like Zach Harrison on the other edge could benefit from all the attention being paid to Young.
Dan: I would expect Clemson to try to replicate what Michigan and Wisconsin did against Young, because it worked and because of how dominant he can be. The Tigers have to take their chances with giving other defensive players a chance to beat them – at least until they do – and try to take Young out of the game as much as they can. From Ohio State's perspective, the defensive tackles – particularly DaVon Hamilton, Jashon Cornell and Robert Landers – will be key to picking up the slack and generating pressure from the inside if Clemson focuses on eliminating Young. That said, I would also anticipate that Greg Mattison and Larry Johnson will have some schematic tricks up their sleeves to try to free up Young and prevent Clemson from simply doing what the Wolverines and Badgers did to slow Young down.
Clemson boasts a great quarterback in Trevor Lawrence and some very tall and very gifted receiving targets in 6-foot-4 receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins. Meanwhile, Ohio State’s pass defense ranks No. 1 in the country in yards per attempt allowed (5.3) and No. 2 in yards allowed per game (148.1). Can Ohio State keep Lawrence and company in check?
Dan: I'm expecting an excellent battle between Clemson's receivers and Ohio State's defensive backs, and I think both sides will make their share of plays. Higgins and Ross are too talented to shut down completely, because even if the Buckeyes have excellent coverage, there will be times where they simply go up and make a better play on a 50/50 ball, and Lawrence does a great job of putting the ball where only his receivers can make the play. That said, Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette and Shaun Wade are certainly the best trio of cornerbacks they've faced all season, and I expect them to be well-prepared for the challenge. Lawrence and the Tigers will make their share of plays through the air, but I expect the Buckeyes to make some big pass breakups of their own and hold Clemson relatively in check. It's going to be a great matchup to watch, especially if you're an NFL scout.
Andy: For my money, this is the most interesting question of the game. I’m relatively confident Ohio State wins in the trenches and has the better rushing game… but the Clemson wide receivers are all-world quality pass-catchers. Ohio State has made a legitimate claim as “DBU” and this game is the latest chance to seal that claim against the toughest competition in the country. I absolutely expect Jeffrey Okudah to look like a first-rounder, and Shaun Wade has been collecting bulletin board material about how Clemson will pick on him instead, so he’ll be dialed in to silence the proverbial haters. Lawrence will make plays with Ross and Higgins, but I don’t expect them to suddenly shred the best pass defense in the country.
Andrew: I don’t think they can, honestly. I’m not calling for Trevor Lawrence to throw for 500 yards or anything like that, but this is far and away the most talented passing attack the Buckeyes have faced in recent memory. I expect Higgins and Ross to both have productive showings and I just can’t foresee any team in America truly slowing them down at this point in the season. Getting pressure on Lawrence and forcing a couple turnovers should be two of Ohio State’s top priorities in this one.
As for Ohio State’s quarterback, Justin Fields, he’ll be looking to make some hay against Clemson’s No. 1 ranked pass defense which is giving up just 138.5 yards per game. Will Ohio State’s offensive line give him enough time to throw? What kind of day do you expect from Fields and his receivers?
Dan: Again, a huge question here is whether Fields is healthy enough to be as mobile as he usually is, because Ohio State's pass protection got exposed a bit when he wasn't fully healthy against Wisconsin. A healthy Fields does an excellent job of extending plays and buying time for his offensive line, but if his movement is more restricted, Ohio State's offensive line will need to be at its best to protect him against a Clemson defense that does an excellent job of disguising blitzes and finding creative ways to put pressure on the quarterback, even though its defensive line isn't as elite as it was a year ago. I think Fields and his receivers will make some big plays, but I don't think the Tigers will make it easy on them. Fields is going to need to be consistent in hitting intermediate passes to move the chains and taking what the defense gives him, but if the Buckeyes' running game can't keep them ahead of the chains, I'm not sure this is a game in which Ohio State can count on Fields to bail them out repeatedly on third-and-long.
Andrew: I’m expecting big things out of Justin Fields and I think he does just that against Clemson. Brent Venables is extremely good at his job and Isaiah Simmons is one of the best defenders in the country, but this isn’t the 2018 version of the Tigers’ defense. Outside of Simmons, I think Dabo Swinney’s defense is pretty beatable and I can see Fields throwing for 250 yards or so with a couple of scores. The matchup in the trenches is an advantage for Ohio State and I believe the wideouts can beat Clemson’s defensive backs as well. The Buckeyes will need to know where Simmons is at all times as he’s clearly an impact player and may be the second-fasted player on the team behind only Travis Etienne.
Andy: Fields doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards to win this game if Ohio State’s running game does what I think it will do. Fields has been the most-efficient quarterback in the country this season, with a ridiculous 40-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and he just needs to maintain that type of approach: smart decisions, make the correct reads, and put your teammates in position to make plays. Brent Venables will throw him looks he hasn’t seen in an effort to confuse the young signal caller, but I have every confidence Fields will be well prepared for what’s coming..
The line will give him time to get the ball out of his hands - provided he doesn’t fall prey to his one quasi-weakness, which has been holding on to the ball too long at times. Evading pressure is the one area that concerns me a little with regard to the health of his knee, but with three weeks of recovery, he should be even more mobile than he was against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title fight.
Ohio State enters the CFP semifinal as a 2.5-point underdog to the Tigers. Do the Buckeyes cover? Give us your final score and game MVP.
Andy: The line on this game amuses me because I think Ohio State is in the driver’s seat in this game. The Buckeyes have been the most-dominant team in the country all season long, and should be about a 6-point favorite in this game according to SP+, which has been a remarkably good predictive tool this season. This will be a dogfight, no question, but the Buckeyes have been tested multiple times whereas Clemson was pushed by… North Carolina. They’ve been able to ride history and a soft schedule into the playoffs, and like the 2014 Seminoles or the 2015 Buckeyes they’re going to run into a sticky situation and find out winning back-to-back titles isn’t easy.
Buckeyes win 35-27 after J.K. Dobbins channels his own desert-themed version of “85 Yards Through the Heart of the South,” and the Buckeyes move on to face the Bayou Bengals for all the marbles.
Andrew: I do have Ohio State covering, but unfortunately I am taking Clemson to win by the slimmest of margins. The two teams match up fairly evenly, but I’m giving the edge to Clemson mostly because Dabo has been here and done it so many times before. That’s not a knock on Ryan Day at all, and I expect this to be a classic matchup with the Tigers ultimately winning by a score of 35-34 with Lawrence being named MVP. I would absolutely love to be wrong.
Dan: I've rarely felt less confident in picking which way a game will go, because I truly see this as a coin-flip game that could go either way, but I think the Buckeyes might be just slightly better and find a way to pull this one out. I'm expecting a close game either way, but I'll predict a final score of 31-28 with Dobbins leading the way in the running game – much like Ezekiel Elliott in Ohio State's 2014 CFP semifinal win over Alabama – to earn game MVP honors.