“I Characterize It As We’ve Never Beat Clemson”: Ohio State Gets Its Shot at Proving It Has a True Rivalry With Clemson In Rematch That Will Linger All Offseason

By Zack Carpenter on December 29, 2020 at 6:27 pm
Chris Olave, Jaylen Harris
Chris Olave, Jaylen Harris After 2019 Loss to Clemson (Adam Cairns – USA Today)

The No. 11 ranking, the sign-stealing allegations, the perceived lack of respect the Buckeyes feel and the “they have more beef with us than we have with them” heater that Amari Rodgers flung Ohio State’s way on Tuesday afternoon.

It’s all, as Garrett Wilson said, adding fuel to a Buckeyes fire that has been lit since last December and probably even before that.

Is Ohio State-Clemson a rivalry?

It was a question posed over and over to both Ohio State and Clemson players during media sessions this week. For Ohio State, it’s obvious the answer is yes. For Clemson, there’s more of a divide, but it came off as pretty clear that many of the Tigers don’t view this matchup the same.

“I don’t really see it as a rivalry, to be honest,” Rodgers said. “It’s just one of those teams that we’ve happened to play a lot since I’ve been here. They’re great games every single time, but I don’t see it as a rivalry.”

On Friday night, when the adrenaline-fueled Part II (or Part III or Part IV, however you want to slice it) of the Buckeyes-Tigers battles actually kicks off, none of that is likely to matter.

Can Ohio State’s interior line led by two future (and possible day-one or day-two) NFL draft picks in Haskell Garrett and Tommy Togiai provide consistent inside pressure on Trevor Lawrence? Will the Buckeyes’ good-but-not-great defensive ends be able to bend around Jackson Carman and Jordan McFadden?

Can the Buckeyes’ much-maligned secondary actually show that it has the ability to step up? And even if it does, will Lawrence burn Ohio State with his legs like he did last year? If Travis Etienne is bottled up at all by a defense designed to stop the run, will he prove the likely scenario true that he’s a matchup problem in the pass game and burn Pete Werner and Co. like he’s burned defenses his whole career?

And those are just the questions for the Buckeyes’ defense.

Justin Fields played perhaps his best career game against Clemson last year, but he’s been bad in his two biggest games this season. If he plays good, not great, will Ohio State even have a chance to cover the spread let alone win? Will Chris Olave be a shell of himself after being out for so long or will he get right back to his star form?

Ryan Day believes handling Clemson’s strong pass rush is the key to the game so will the Buckeyes offensive line provide enough time for Fields to get comfortable or will he be running for his life? Trey Sermon’s record-breaking Big Ten Championship Game performance was an anomaly, but can he be even at least half as productive against a defense at least twice as talented as Northwestern’s?

But the answers to those questions all still lead us back to a question that’s way less important when it comes to the actual football being played but one that’s important to examine when looking at the national conversation of the sport:

Is Ohio State-Clemson a rivalry?

Perhaps Shaun Wade put it best when he was asked to characterize the rivalry and he succinctly said, “I characterize it as we've never beat Clemson.”

“So we have to beat that team, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Wade continued. “In our past history, we never beat them so that’s our goal is to win this game and just go from there. ... Everybody that’s playing now had something to do with last year’s game, so everybody just has their taste in their mouth and they understand what’s at stake, so everybody’s just laser-focused and really, we’re worried about this game and just trying to take it from there. This game is very important to everybody, and we definitely want to win.”

“I don’t really see it as a rivalry, to be honest. It’s just one of those teams that we’ve happened to play a lot since I’ve been here.”– Clemson receiver Amari Rodgers

Ohio State proved it belonged on the same field, in the same breath and in the same tier as Clemson last season. And it still lost because at least 10 things didn’t go the Buckeyes’ way, some that they couldn’t control and others that were their own undoing.

If the Buckeyes lose to Clemson again, it’s not going to be an indicator of Ohio State’s ability to win Big Ten championships. It’s not going to serve as a harbinger that the program won’t be right back in the same place next season as one of the four teams fighting for a national championship. It won’t even mean they won’t get another crack at Clemson in the Cotton or Orange Bowl of 2021 or the national title game at Lucas Oil Stadium 11 days later.

But it will be another piece of strong evidence that Clemson reigns supreme over Ohio State. It will be another recruiting tool for Clemson to use over a program that recruits many of the same players. It will be another knife twist that lingers, especially for the players who specifically returned to Ohio State to get another opportunity to take the Tigers down.

It will be another squeeze of the gasoline can over a fire that’s been lit under this Day-led program ever since 29-23. Lose to Clemson again and maybe Mickey Marotti will have to hang another sign in the Buckeyes’ weight room for offseason motivation.

And that sign would hang at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center just like the Clemson cloud that will keep hovering over Columbus until Ohio State actually beats Dabo’s program. But pull it off and it will be a burden – a monkey, most might say – lifted off the program's back and an entirely different atmosphere that lingers all offseason.

It would be a hell of an upset for the 11th-best team in the country. 

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