Ohio State is one of the four teams that made this year’s College Football Playoff. Penn State is not. According to the internet, this is good and also bad. Nittany Lions? More like Schrödinger’s Cats, folks.
Anyway. The Buckeyes, who only lost one game this year instead of two, will take the field against Clemson on New Year’s Eve to determine a berth in the national title game. Both teams are stacked with dynamic playmakers, giving us a whole host of exciting things to watch for on December 31. Here, you’ll find a look at some of the matchups, players, and other CFB esoterica that make this game stand out as a surefire thrill ride.
Deshaun Watson v. the Buckeye pass rush
let Deshaun Watson’s season distract you from the fact that Notre Dame went 4-8 sleep on Deshaun Watson. The Tigers’ QB has had a tremendous year slinging the rock, finishing 2016 with 3,626 passing yards and an eye-popping 34 touchdowns. He’s often damned with faint praise as a “dual-threat quarterback,” but really, Watson has been a consistent and effective as a pocket passer in an explosive Clemson offense. He can run—he gained almost five yards per carry and scored four rushing TDs in the regular season—but make no mistake: Watson’s arm is far more deadly than his legs. He’ll be one of the best QBs the Buckeyes have faced this year along with Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield.
Watson will be tasked with staring down a formidable Buckeye front four. The seven OSU players who regularly line up in those four spots—Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, Dre’Mont Jones, Robert Landers, Michael Hill, Nick Bosa, and Jalyn Holmes—are more than capable of getting after quarterbacks and forcing them into bad throws (when they get the throw off at all). That group has accounted for 18.5 sacks and four pass breakups.
J.T. Barrett’s arm v. the Clemson secondary
In 2016, Clemson quietly put together a phenomenal season in the secondary. The Tigers finished No. 4 in pass defense S&P+ (No. 6 overall defensively) thanks to a terrifying pass rush and a secondary that refused to give up long, explosive plays. Clemson’s defensive backs finished the regular season with 10 picks, five of those courtesy of ballhawking safety Jadar Johnson.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, have been less-than-inspiring of late when moving the ball through the air. J.T. Barrett has recorded back-to-back games completing fewer than 50% of his passes, at times looking like he’s throwing a knuckleball rather than a football. The veteran QB has regressed as a passer, relying instead on his legs to get him out of trouble time after time down the home stretch.
Ohio State has a lot of talent at receiver and H-back, but Clemson is going to make it very difficult for them to get the ball.
Ohio State’s 4th-quarter terror squad
Thanks to their ridiculous depth along the front four, the Ohio State defense gets stronger as games wear on. The Buckeyes finished the season ranked No. 1 in 4th-quarter defensive S&P+, and it’s not hard to see why. They were consistently able to slam the door shut on opponents who insisted on hanging around beyond halftime (see: Michigan’s five total yards in the game’s final quarter), and it made all the difference in conference play.
Clemson, meanwhile, played its best on offense before halftime throughout the year. The Tigers’ offensive S&P+, by quarter: 21, 2, 33, 28. A number of factors contribute to this, not least of which is that Clemson blew the doors off of several opponents and could afford to take their collective foot off the gas. Still, if you’re a Buckeye fan, you have to like your chances if you’re up by a touchdown or so heading into the fourth.
Buckeye rushers v. Clemson front 7
There’s no question that the Ohio State passing offense is on Shakey’s Pizza Watch.
But it’s hard not to love what the Buckeyes have been able to do on the ground against opponents all season. Urban Meyer’s team is No. 2 nationally in rushing S&P+, thanks to an onslaught of explosive run plays and efficient moving of the chains. Mike Weber, J.T. Barrett, and Curtis Samuel have all recorded more than 700 rush yards and eight TDs, and when they’re firing on all cylinders, they look like world-beaters.
The Tigers are going to have their hands (paws?) full. They rank 28th against the run, a stat which disguises their No. 109 finish in explosive run plays. Translation: they’re pretty good most of the time, but have a real weakness when it comes to giving up home runs on the ground. The Buckeyes have killed teams with big run plays in 2016—more of the same could happen here.
Weird Dabo v. Weird Urban
It takes a certain kind of lunatic to successfully coach football at the highest levels, and the two men in the headsets for this one are no exception.
On the Clemson sideline, there’s Dabo Swinney, a grown man who goes by “Dabo.” That’s probably enough to qualify him from the jump, but there’s more: Dabo Swinney regularly talks about Dabo Swinney in the third person. Dabo Swinney loves naps, and once invited Jim Rome to take one at the Clemson facility. Dabo Swinney did not know his given name until he was in 3rd grade:
Dabo on his name: "This is honest to God truth. I had no idea my name was even William until like the 3rd grade because of those scantrons."— Derek Phillips (@DerekPhillips89) January 5, 2016
Urban Meyer, meanwhile, is a more traditional coaching lunatic, in the sense that he cared so much about football that it literally almost killed him a few years ago. These days, the biggest knock on him seems to be that he’s at best indifferent toward the issue of whether or not grown men should drink milk. Oh, and he also starred in this College Football Playoff ad:
That commercial is remarkable for sooo many reasons, from the Boschian nightmare of Oregon’s mascot ruling all others to the fact that Mississippi State, Georgia, and Tennessee all appear unironically in an ad about, you know, the College Football Playoff. It takes a nut like Meyer to sell the whole thing with his uber-serious cadence and commanding voice.
Advantage: Tigers, by the Swinniest of margins