Dabo Swinney thinks Clemson earned its place in the College Football Playoff more than Ohio State did, and he hasn’t been shy about expressing that opinion.
Two weeks ago, Swinney said he thought the teams who played more games – like those in the ACC, SEC and Big 12 – should be chosen for the playoff over teams like Ohio State that played only six. He made it clear just how much he believed in that stance when he ranked Ohio State 11th in the Coaches Poll, even though the final Coaches Poll ballots before bowl season are made public each year and it was evident by the time he voted that the Tigers and Buckeyes would likely meet in this year’s CFP semifinals.
It’s fair to argue that Clemson had to do more to earn its place in the CFP than Ohio State did. After all, the Tigers had to win 10 games to secure their berth in the playoff while the Buckeyes only had to win six. While Clemson had the margin for error to lose a game in the regular season and still make the playoff, a luxury Ohio State certainly would not have had, it still had to win four more games to seize its berth in the semifinals, as a second loss likely would have knocked the Tigers out.
None of that really matters anymore, though. Whether Swinney likes it or not, his Tigers will be playing Ryan Day’s Buckeyes in next week’s playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl. Both teams did what they had to do to demonstrate to the selection committee that they are two of the four best teams in college football, and both teams have to win the same number of games from this point forward – two – to win a national championship.
The question that remains, however, is which team’s schedule gives it an advantage entering the CFP: Clemson, who has played nearly a full normal season’s worth of games since starting play in September, or Ohio State, which has played only half a normal season’s worth of games since its opener in late October?
Valid arguments can be made on both sides of the equation.
Clemson started fall camp in August and has been practicing or playing football games ever since, whereas Ohio State didn’t have its first padded practice of the year until late September, and that should mean the Buckeyes are fresher physically going into the playoff.
“The mental and physical toll of a season, there's nobody out there that would say that somebody who's played 11 games versus somebody who's played six is better physically or something like that because it's a long season,” Swinney said this week. “We're going on Week 21. These guys have had no break. It's been a grind, not just football-wise, but the mental challenge and the personal sacrifice and commitment that everybody's had to make to be able to play and continue to play.
“Any time you step in between the lines in the game of football, that's a lot of practices. That's a lot of physicality. So I definitely think that it matters.”
While Swinney says Clemson is “the healthiest we've been by far” right now, the Tigers have dealt with their share of injuries this season on both sides of the ball, and “still don't have a lot of people.” While Ohio State has had more than 20 unavailable players for each of its last two games, many of those absences have been because of positive COVID-19 tests, and Ryan Day believes the Buckeyes are in a good place physically right now.
“We haven't played in that many games, so we've been fairly healthy in terms of the physicality of it all,” Day said.
The other side of the equation, though, is the Buckeyes haven’t had as many opportunities to get better by actually playing games. And even though they’ve won all six games they’ve played, there’s reason to believe they would have benefitted from getting to play more regular-season games.
Despite what Swinney said about the physical toll his team has had to endure, the Tigers have been playing their best football season down the stretch – their ninth, 10th and 11th games of the year – with a 52-17 win over Pittsburgh, 45-10 win over Virginia Tech and 34-10 win over Notre Dame.
“We're at our best right now,” Swinney said Sunday.
Ohio State, on the other hand, enters the CFP with some significant question marks – particularly its pass defense, which hasn’t faced a passing offense ranked in the top 50 nationally in yards per game since it gave up 491 yards to Indiana – and Day, who would have preferred for his team to have the opportunity to play a fuller schedule like Clemson did, believes the Buckeyes haven’t yet played the way they’ll need to play to beat Clemson next Friday.
“We certainly don't have the game reps, especially for the younger guys, to find out what they can do,” Day said. “And we haven't had our best game yet this year. Played some good games, but we haven't played our best game this year, and we're going to have to play our best game again to beat Clemson.”
Ohio State will have more Clemson game film to study than Clemson will have Ohio State tape to study, which could give the Buckeyes an advantage in identifying Clemson’s tendencies – though Swinney said Monday during an appearance on the ACC Network that it will be easier for Clemson’s coaches to watch Ohio State’s film from a practical standpoint.
"It does make it a little easier 'cause there's not as much tape to pour through. You can't make it up, there's only six games."— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) December 21, 2020
Dabo Swinney discusses his preparation for Ohio State
(via @accnetwork) pic.twitter.com/yEqZuhsxWq
Day isn’t making any proclamations about what impact the shorter season might have on his team in the playoff. Truth is, because no team has ever played in the College Football Playoff after playing so few regular-season games, no one really knows how much of an advantage it might be to be physically fresher or how much of a disadvantage it might be to have less game experience.
“It's never really been done before,” Day said of playing only six games before the playoff. “So what does it really mean? I don't really know. I think at the end of the day, it's who executes better and plays tougher in the end. When you play in big games, you have to execute at a high level. That's really what it comes down to.
“Both teams are going to play hard. Everything is on the line. It is who executes better is going to pull it out. We have to do that. Whether we played six, eight, 10 or they played 12, I don't know what that really means. So we'll try not to focus on that. We'll try to execute the best game.”
The one thing both coaches agree on, despite the back-and-forth banter: The Sugar Bowl isn’t going to be decided by how many games their teams have or haven’t played this year, but by who plays the best football on Jan. 1.
“At the end of the day, none of that matters in New Orleans,” Swinney said. “What matters is who plays the best in those four quarters.”