Ryan Day, Justin Fields and the rest of the Ohio State Buckeyes have waited a little more than a year for this moment – a rematch against Clemson with a spot in the national championship on the line.
An added bonus for fans would be giving Dabo Swinney a healthy dose of Shut The F&% Up.
But beating Trevor Lawrence will be a tall task for a Buckeye squad that's only had six games to develop and gel. Can Ohio State pull the mild upset?
Justin Fields didn’t look great against Indiana or Northwestern and now faces a Clemson team ranked No. 26 in pass defense (198.6 ypg) and No. 10 in completion percentage allowed at 53.3. How confident are you Fields and company will regain form? Is having Chris Olave back enough? What kind of night do you expect from Ohio State’s passing game?
Zack: Fields, Olave and Garrett Wilson were humming along the first three weeks of the season. Then came the stops and starts: Game, game, game, canceled game, game, canceled game, game, canceled game, game.
Six straight weeks of being off and on. They haven’t established a consistent rhythm in the passing game during that stretch, and Olave’s absence just added to it. I think all of that added up to the career-worst game we saw from Fields in the Big Ten title game.
Will a couple weeks of practice be enough to get back into a rhythm? Maybe. But, honestly, that’s not what I would be concerned about here the most if I was an Ohio State fan looking at the passing game. I’m willing to believe that Fields is able to get back that chemistry, timing and feel with a pair of receivers that helped him become the Heisman frontrunner through three games. But it’s not going to matter at all if the Buckeyes don’t hold up in pass protection.
Northwestern and Indiana were able to put pressure on Fields consistently (also playing a massive helping hand to his struggles in both games, in addition to the stops and starts) and get him off schedule and uncomfortable. Brent Venables is one of the smartest defensive minds in the sport. He loves to pack on pressure and send blitzes from all different angles. And you can pretty much bank on him attacking Harry Miller, the Buckeyes’ weakness on the offensive line, to get to Fields.
I, like Ryan Day, see Clemson’s pass rush – which is fourth in the country with 4.0 sacks per game – being a key factor on Friday. Fields is going to have a good-not-great game, and that won’t be enough to beat Clemson. I think that consistent pressure and the Tigers’ array of blitzes are going to keep him from being great. Olave and Wilson are too good to be contained all game, and Fields will hit a couple big plays with them. But I think Fields is going to have to go underneath throughout the game and the home-run plays won’t be there as often.
Colin: Reasonably confident but not completely confident. This season’s been weird for numerous reasons, but the fact Fields’ play is even a remote question mark for me is up there on the crazy meter.
It’s fair to start this roundtable discussion off with this question because, at least in my opinion, whether or not Fields plays up to his capability is the difference in whether or not Ohio State can beat Clemson. If he can start to once again play like the guy who had me convinced he’s the most talented quarterback to ever play for the Buckeyes, there’s no reason he can’t lead his team to the national championship. Conversely, I just don’t see a path to victory if he falters.
The thumb sprain, weirdly poor decisions that led to turnovers recently and aggressiveness to a fault are reasons for concern. But with Ryan Day and Fields locked in on this matchup for the entire year and Olave back to help Ohio State when it wants to take deep shots, I’m a believer that they’ll start clicking again.
Matt: Entering last year's College Football Playoff semifinal, Clemson's defense was ranked No. 1 in passing yards allowed. What did Justin Fields do against a unit allowing 138.5 yards per game? He lit them up for 320 yards and 20 completions. With that said, I hope that kind of performance isn't needed from Fields.
For the latter half of the season, Ohio State's offensive line has quietly paved the way for the Buckeyes to lead all other Power 5 schools with just over 275 rushing yards per game. With the emergence of Trey Sermon, Fields may not have to put the game on his golden arm.
With the severity of the injury to his thumb unknown, my hope is Ohio State can dominate the trenches, rack up the yards (and points) and keep Clemson's offense off of the field. Here's to Fields throwing for around 250 yards, connecting on two touchdown passes, having zero interceptions and rushing for at least 50 yards and a score.
Trevor Lawrence looks like the best quarterback in college football to me. His receiving corps may not be as strong as last year but the Tigers will be facing the nation’s No. 103 ranked pass defense (261.3 ypg) which is also allowing a 62.8 completion rate, good for just No. 74 in the country. Will the Buckeyes be able to slow Lawrence and the Tigers passing game? If so, how?
Matt: Virginia Tech is the only 2020 opponent to hold Lawrence under 280 passing yards when he attempted at least 10 passes. For Ohio State to become the second to do so, the defensive line will need to apply pressure with minimal help from blitzes.
Haskell Garrett and Tommy Togiai have been exceptional in the middle. Can Jonathon Cooper, Tyreke Smith, Javontae Jean-Baptiste, Tyler Friday and Zach Harrison apply pressure from the edges without giving up lanes for Lawrence to run through? If so, the Buckeyes will be able to have an extra man in coverage and might have a shot at keeping the Tigers air attack grounded.
Colin: If you’re confident that Ohio State will slow down this passing offense, you’re basically blindly believing in talent.
To be honest, not much that’s actually happened on the football field this fall fills me with optimism about this secondary. Shaun Wade hasn’t lived up to expectations. Marcus Williamson and Sevyn Banks have gotten beat for big gains several times. Marcus Hooker’s had major issues as the single-deep safety. Yet when this group takes the field on Friday, more than 40 days will have passed since the last time it went up against a competent passing offense. How much has changed since then and how much Kerry Coombs has improved these defensive backs is a complete unknown.
I think there’s a way to look at this from an optimistic perspective, though.
Clemson doesn’t have Mike Williams, Sammy Watkins, Tee Higgins or Justyn Ross. Its top receivers are Amari Rodgers, a slot wideout, and Cornell Powell, who’s having a late career breakthrough. No other receiver on this team has more than 19 receptions. Are the Tigers going to attack Ohio State like Indiana did with pass after pass down the field, often to the sideline? I’m not so sure about that.
I think as much as anything, Ohio State has to prevent running back Travis Etienne from killing them in space and Lawrence from eating them up with runs. That’s where the linebackers and Josh Proctor will be huge. As much as I’ll be paying attention to the secondary, I’ll have my eyes trained on the linebackers who’ll have to stop Clemson from being able to move the chains underneath.
Zack: On the flip side of my argument about Fields going up against Clemson’s pressure, here’s where the other key to the game lies. Ohio State is third in the country in quarterback pressure rate but is tied for 25th in the country with 2.83 sacks per game.
The Buckeyes did a great job getting in his face in the Fiesta Bowl, including three sacks and some big hits, and it made a tangible difference. They absolutely need a repeat type of performance in 2020. Clemson’s top two receivers Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell don’t put the fear of God in you like Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams, Tee Higgins or Justyn Ross. But I still have zero belief that Ohio State’s secondary can hold up against the Tigers’ receiving corps without the front four (and any blitzers the Buckeyes send) getting home on Lawrence.
The matchup I find the most interesting is what Ohio State will do with Rodgers. Heading into the season opener against Nebraska, my biggest question for the game was how will Marcus Williamson look in the slot against Wan’Dale Robinson?
In short, I said that an underrated part of this season was how Williamson performs in the slot because he would need to continually learn and improve in order for him to have any shot at holding his own against Rodgers or Jaylen Waddle (who was lost for the season with an injury).
However, in that game against the Cornhuskers – who had the best slot receiver Ohio State faced this season before the playoff – the Buckeyes didn’t stick Williamson on Robinson as much as I thought they might. So it won’t be surprising for there to be an array of matchups and different looks on Rodgers in this game. For me, Clemson’s success or lack thereof in the passing game comes down to whether or not Ohio State can get consistent pressure up front and whether or not it can win its matchup with Rodgers.
Trey Sermon went bonkers for 331 rushing yards against Northwestern behind an offensive line that helped rack up 399 total rushing yards against the Wildcats on 9.1 yards a pop. My mind is still blown from Sermon’s day. Can the Buckeyes have a big night on the ground against the Tigers? What kind of night do you expect from Sermon? How big of a factor might Fields be in the running game?
Zack: Sermon’s record-breaking performance was an anomaly. If he delivers that again, Ohio State’s going to win something like 21-17. That’s not going to happen. Think that’s rather obvious.
Do the Buckeyes try to run up tempo with no-huddle looks? Or do they huddle, taking away any chance of Venables’ apparently now-notorious sign stealing and grinding things out? I don’t think so. Day has shown too much of a propensity to be “aggressive,” as he always calls it, and throw the ball all over the yard. I really don’t see Day changing things up now. If you’ve got Fields and this array of pass catchers, you’re going to use them. Dance with the one you brought, right?
Sermon will be under 100 yards. But this could absolutely be the time that Day tries to unleash Fields in the ground game in a similar vein to the way Clemson breaks out Lawrence as a runner in playoff games.
Colin: Yes, they can and they need to.
Sermon justly received the majority of praise. It was nothing less than stunning to see him rack up 300-plus yards in the Big Ten title game, coming close to matching his combined total for the prior five games. He was decisive and made defenders miss at the second level. But the offensive line deserved props, too. While I was perhaps overly optimistic about that five-man unit before the season, it has undeniably found its footing late in the year on the ground and could mash on Friday.
I’m obviously not expecting a repeat of the Big Ten title game. I’m not crazy.
But I do think this run game can make a notable impact on Friday for two reasons: 1) This offensive line should be able to tire and move Clemson’s front seven enough to create opening for the backs and 2) I’m a believer that Sermon will make a couple of guys miss at the second level for a significant gain or two. Seeing that aspect of his game on display makes me far, far more optimistic about the run game than I was previously.
Matt: Ohio State has rushed for over 300 yards in three consecutive games. The Buckeyes rushed for 307 against Indiana, racked up 322 on the Spartans and the 399 against Northwestern. It might be a tall task to keep that streak going against Clemson.
The Tigers are allowing less than 100 rushing yards per game, with 208 being the most given up all year. In the ACC championship game, Will Venable's defense held Notre Dame to a paltry 44 rushing yards.
I have no idea what to expect from Trey Sermon tomorrow night. Hoping he puts on the same kind of stretch that Ezekiel Elliott had in the 2015 College Football Playoffs. As I alluded to above, Fields' rushing ability might be the X-factor for the offense.
Last year, his hurting knee kept him from exploiting Clemson's defense with his legs. This year, Fields should be able to hurt the Tigers on the ground. Unfortunately, his thumb injury might be a detriment to the passing attack.
In the other semifinal, Alabama is favored by 17 over Notre Dame. I doubt any of you think the Irish win but will they cover? Would you have included Notre Dame in your playoff field? If not, which team would’ve been in the No. 4 slot?
Matt: Alabama is 8-2 against the spread this season and is 19-11 against Vegas' line when favored by 19 or more points. I'll take
Satan Saban to cover.
Looking at this year's candidates for the No. 4 seed, there isn't a team that stands out. Of the programs vying for that spot, I think Notre Dame was the correct choice. We've already witnessed Alabama taking Texas A&M to the woodshed and beating three-loss Florida.
In the end, all three of those teams are likely to get destroyed by the Alabama juggernaut. Due to this, it was an ideal opportunity for the committee to have given Cincinnati the nod. By doing so, it would have generated some interest in the game and pacified the non-Power Five conferences.
Colin: The betting line keeps increasing. As of typing this, it’s already crept up to 20 points. At this point, I’d pick Notre Dame to ever so slightly cover. Yes, Alabama’s as good as advertised. But that’s a nearly three-touchdown spread in the semifinal. I’d have to take the Fighting Irish.
And yes, while I understand the dismay from some, I’d have picked Notre Dame as the fourth team, too. To me, it would have come down to Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Cincinnati, and I’d have taken Brian Kelly’s team.
Zack: Nope. Tide rolls to a 49-21 win. And here’s the annual reminder that the result of one game doesn’t necessarily mean that either team was or wasn’t deserving to be there. In the NCAA Tournament, just because a No. 12 seed goes on a mini two-game run and reaches the Sweet 16 doesn’t necessarily mean it deserved to get to the Dance. Conversely, just because a No. 4 seed gets upset by a No. 13 doesn’t mean that it didn’t deserve a top-four seed.
Notre Dame was the most deserving of being the No. 4 or even the No. 3. Getting blown out by the best team in college football and the eventual national champion doesn’t denigrate that.
Ohio State enters the contest as a 7.5-point underdog. Will the Buckeyes pull the upset? Give us your final score.
Zack: Nope. My official prediction is 42-31, but those numbers are a bit arbitrary. Clemson confidently wins by two scores and keeps its crown over Ohio State.
Colin: I think Ohio State can win. I just can’t go all the way myself to pick it.
Clemson 42, Ohio State 36.
The unknowns surrounding the defense are too much for me to overcome. To pick the Buckeyes, you’re assuming a defense we haven’t seen face a prolific passing attack since Indiana dropped nearly 500 yards through the air on them will be able to slow down Lawrence and co.
Matt: How dominant has Ohio State been recently? This is only the third time since 2016 that the Scarlet and Gray enters a game as the underdog.
Looking at results from their last 10 contests when spotted points, the Buckeyes are 8-2 against the spread and 7-3 straight up. Anytime you can take the Columbus kids with points, you do it.
Ohio State 33, Clemson 30