College Football Playoff Preview: Clemson vs. Ohio State

Clemson is eyeing a national title rematch with Alabama, but Ohio State is a huge obstacle.

Well, if the whole New Year’s Eve thing is destined to be a gas fire no matter which teams are in the late game and what the future holds (i.e., college football acknowledging the stupidity of trying to make the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Eve a “tradition”), this game would be your proof in the pudding.

Who can miss the most polarizing, talked about program in college football over the past decade and the CFB Playoff runner-up from the previous season? Hell, I guess come Saturday night, we’ll find out when Ohio State and Clemson do-si-do for the second time in three years.

Honestly, at first glance, this one could go either way. Plus, it’s on a Saturday. So we’re all going to win compared to last year, somewhat. But you’re still not convincing your girlfriend that you can’t go to a New Year’s Eve party because you’ve got to watch football without serious consequences.

Ohio State will win if …

Truthfully, it’s pretty darn simple: can Ohio State stop the run? Clemson’s lone loss was to Pitt, which is the only ACC team ranked in the top 25 in total rushing defense. Even though the Tigers scored 42 points in the last-second L, it was the lone game they failed to rush for under 120 yards (50) and picked up all of ZERO first downs on the ground. That’s an amazing statistic for scoring 42 points.

Also, the Tigers have a propensity for turning the ball over, breaking even on the season in turnover margin and having three one-possession games that saw them give up at least three turnovers. Ohio State represents the best rushing defense Clemson will have faced all season, ranked 13th in the country.

The Buckeyes will want to avoid giving up big plays. Clemson is 68th in the country in red zone offense, while the Bucks rank in the top 20 in defense in the red area. Making them drive the full length of the field will tilt the odds in Ohio State’s favor.

And J.T. Barrett will need to play one of his best games. The Ohio State passing offense is ranked 78th in the country. It’s not the part of the offense they’d rather win with versus putting it on the ground. Barrett’s accuracy will assuredly have to be better than the final two games of the season, against Michigan State and Michigan, where he was a combined 25-of-54 throwing the ball.

Clemson is too good to try and toe that line again. MSU isn’t a good offensive team, and Michigan made a cadre of self-inflicted mistakes to help the Bucks overcome them. So in short: stop Clemson’s run and throw the ball competently, and that should get it done for Ohio State.

Clemson will win if …

Clemson must commit to the run, both moving the ball offense and stopping the ground game on defense. In five of Clemson’s seven one-possession finishes, they gave up at least four yards per carry to the opponent, including their loss to Pitt.

Any success against the OSU rushing attack, combined with not turning the ball over (OSU is top 20 in turnover margin) will force the Buckeyes to try to take shots downfield, which isn’t their forte. They have only four passing plays of over 40 yards on the season, so would rather not rely on big plays through the air to get the job done. Odds are, the tools will be left in the yard long before the final shingles are on the roof, in that case.

And naturally, on that running the ball thing, because OSU isn’t a big-play group, Clemson keeping the ball in its hands is crucial. In four of the five one-possession games the Buckeyes participated in, including their loss to Penn State, the opponent averaged at least five yards per carry on the ground. Contrast that with the stats above about Clemson’s only loss occurring when the running game was shut down, and this one very much comes down to the guys in the trenches than anyone really wants to admit, considering the dynamic offenses in play.

Common Opponents:

Neither team played a common opponent this season.

Prediction:

Though they play dramatically different styles, one a big-play offense and the other a more of a ground-and-pound, take-your-will offense, these are two teams that understand how to win close games against both equal-ish and inferior opponents thirsting for an upset. One sneaky key stat is that both teams are among the top 10 in both third-down offense and defense, and you can expect this game to be won on that and whoever makes the biggest plays.

Clemson is the best offense the Buckeyes will play, and their lapses in the running game are fewer than OSU’s in their run defense. The Tigers will get enough from their running game to keep OSU honest with Deshaun Watson, and Clemson will keep down the turnovers. It’ll be close, maybe a photo finish.

Tigers 30, Buckeyes 28.

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