The must-see head-to-head matchups in this Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl playoff semifinal between Clemson and Ohio State are highlighted by an epic confrontation between the Tiger receivers and the Buckeye DBs.
Who’ll win this Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl between Clemson and Ohio State to advance to the Jan. 9 National Championship in Tampa? Plenty will hinge on the games-within-the-game, those head-to-head and unit clashes that tip the scales in the direction of the more dominant side.
The outcomes of the five matchups below will go a long way to determining the winner when the Tigers and Buckeyes lock horns at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
5. Clemson RB Wayne Gallman vs. Raekwon McMillan and the Ohio State Linebackers
The Tiger ground game has been a disappointment this season, a trend that’ll be tough to reverse in Glendale. A year ago, Clemson averaged 223 rushing yards a game and 4.9 yards per carry. This season? 173 and 4.5. Now, QB Deshaun Watson’s production has slipped, but so has Gallman’s, due in part to the performance of the offensive line.
To establish a running game against Ohio State, the Tigers must not only win at the point of attack, but also evade a dynamite group of linebackers. While McMillan is the hard-hitting headliner, junior Chris Worley finished the season strong and Jerome Baker filled in extremely well after starter Dante Booker injured his knee in the opener.
4. Ohio State H-Back Curtis Samuel vs. Clemson Linebackers Ben Boulware and Kendall Joseph
J.T. Barrett is the even-keeled vet behind center, and RB Mike Weber has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in his first season. But the versatile and multi-dimensional Samuel is the Buckeyes’ most dangerous offensive weapon. He’s done it all this season, from catching a team-high 65 passes and averaging 7.7 yards on 91 carries to rushing for the clincher in overtime versus Michigan. Samuel is a special talent, Urban Meyer’s Percy Harvin in Columbus. No. 4 will command the undivided attention of Boulware and Joseph, who are determined to keep the playmaker from getting to the edge and getting past the second level of the D.
3. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett vs. CB Cordrea Tankersley and the Clemson Secondary
This has not been the same Barrett who flirted with Heisman immortality as a redshirt freshman in 2014. Yeah, he’s still sneaky-dangerous on the ground, but he’s regressed as a distributor. In Barrett’s four best games, he threw 18 touchdown passes. But in the other eight, just six, while completing 46% of his throws in the final two outings with Michigan State and Michigan.
It’ll be difficult for Barrett to snap out of his funk of inconsistency against Tankersley and his crew of DBs. While Pitt QB Nathan Peterman solved the Clemson secondary on Nov. 12, he was the exception. Tankersley is a next-level lockdown corner, and the Tigers rank fifth nationally in pass efficiency D.
2. Carlos Watkins and the Clemson D-Line vs. Pat Elflein and the Ohio State O-Line
The Tigers are loaded with girth and star power up front … again. NFL-caliber linemen come and go at Clemson, but Dabo Swinney and Brent Venables just keep restocking the shelves with dancing bears, like underclassmen Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins. And while Elflein is one of the nation’s premier centers, the Buckeyes are vulnerable off the edge. Tackles Jamarco Jones and Isaiah Prince can be beaten off the snap, and Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, another young kid with a very high ceiling, are capable of taking advantage. Ohio State has allowed 25 sacks, including six to Penn State in its only loss of the season.
1. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson and his receivers vs. S Malik Hooker, CB Marshon Lattimore and the Ohio State Secondary
An epic matchup between the cagey quarterback and a young defensive backfield that matured at warp speed in 2016. Watson is the best quarterback in the CFP, if not the country, despite his intermittent bouts of inconsistency this season. And he’s surrounded by an array of gifted targets, like Mike Williams, Deon Cain, Artavis Scott and big-play TE Jordan Leggett.
The Buckeyes, though, are loaded on the back end, despite not using a single senior. Hooker and Lattimore performed at an All-American level as first-time starters, and CB Gareon Conley has a future on Sundays. Ohio State leads the nation in pass efficiency D, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 47.3% of their passes.