Today, we bring you the final installment in a four-part series that we did with our friends over at Shakin The Southland, our SB Nation Clemson sister site. We answered two sets of questions that they had about the Ohio State Buckeyes, and they answered two sets of questions that we had about the Clemson Tigers.
In this set of questions we talked about both macro and micro topics with STS’s Tom Dianora heading into this Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl. Check out what Tom had to say and let us know what you think is going to happen in the comments below.
LGHL: Much of the national narrative around this game has been that both teams are good, but that Clemson is just better and will march through Ohio State and LSU en route to a second-straight national championship. Is that also the vibe amongst Clemson fans, or do that have any apprehension about the game?
Tom Dianora: Really? I admittedly haven’t been consuming a ton of media coverage in the past week or so, but I haven’t really heard this as a major narrative. In my admittedly limited recent consumption, I have not gotten the sense that that that one network and SEC propaganda machine is pushing this type of narrative. And I know that segments are still picking against Clemson, led by Dumbo Paul Finebaum.
In any event, while some Clemson fans might be excessively confident given the team’s recent run of success, I personally think that this is close to a toss-up game. Furthermore, I am more apprehensive about this matchup than a potential championship game tilt against LSU.
J.K. Dobbins presents a problem for a Clemson run defense, that, while very good, isn’t as dominant as in years past, and of course hasn’t faced a back (or line) of this caliber all season. The Buckeyes’ pass rush, led by Chase Young, is also scary, but the Tigers should hopefully have enough weapons to mitigate the damage they will cause. There’s obviously a lot more to unpack here, but I’ll stop now so I can speak to those things more in the next questions below.
LGHL: Ohio State has the top scoring offense in the country this season, and Clemson has the top scoring defense. If we imagine a situation in which the Buckeyes score 40+ in the game, what aspect of the Tiger defense do you think that they would have been able to exploit the most?
Tom Dianora: Oof, that would be bad news for Clemson. If this were to come to fruition, I have to think that Dobbins would be at the center of it. The Tigers have the No. 1 passing defense in the country, allowing just 138.5 aerial yards per game. Their run defense has been better lately to get them up to No. 9 in the country at 106.2 yards per game.
Still, they have not faced a running threat quite like Dobbins all season. The best back they faced this year, in my estimation, was Boston College’s AJ Dillon. Dillon rushed for 76 yards on 19 carries, which, while nothing special, is reasonably solid, and more impressive when you consider that the Eagles had zero passing threat and were all about the run game.
Dobbins is a concern not only because of his own skill, but because of the fact that Ohio State has a more balanced offense, so the Tigers can’t simply sell out to stop the run like they did against BC. If the Buckeyes were to score 40+ in this game, I think Dobbins would be leading the way, which would then open things up for Fields to hit on a few quick strikes. Fields overcoming his knee injury to be a factor in the running game as well would also make this 40+ scenario much more likely.
LGHL: Isaiah Simmons is a nearly unstoppable force for the Clemson defense. I know that the offenses that he’s faced this year haven’t been great, but has anyone been able to slow him down at all, and if so, how?
Tom Dianora: No one I can think of has really managed to slow down Simmons, as his versatility makes it nearly impossible to completely nullify him. He has the ever-desirable combination of speed, size, and strength that allows him to effectively rush the quarterback, be a force in run coverage, drop back into pass coverage, and spy mobile quarterbacks. And now, in his third year playing regularly and second as a linebacker (he was a safety in his redshirt freshman season), he has the mastery of Clemson’s scheme and more comfort in his hybrid linebacker role that makes him even more dangerous.
In my mind, the best way to limit the havoc he can cause is to have a balanced attack, which Ohio State is more capable of doing than anyone Clemson has faced this year. It’s difficult to take away everything that Simmons can do, so the Buckeyes’ best hope, in my opinion, is to keep him and the Clemson defense guessing. It should be an awesome matchup to watch.
LGHL: In our conversation last week with Ryan, we discussed OSU’s path to victory going through J.K. Dobbins, but I want to discuss the passing game. Justin Fields will throw outs and comebacks towards the sideline, but because of Ohio State’s wide receiver depth, he ends up throwing deep regularly. It seems like if OSU can get Tanner Muse on an island, that might be an opportunity for big completions. Do you think that’s accurate, or will Clemson have a different plan to protect deep?
Tom Dianora: I definitely agree that Dobbins is the key to victory for Ohio State, but it’s of course worth discussing the Buckeyes’ passing attack as well. To your point, if they can find a way to get Muse caught in one-on-one coverage, the big-play opportunities will be there. We saw Virginia have some level of success with this in the ACC Championship Game, as Muse got burned for several big plays, including a touchdown.
Virginia also moved the ball relatively well with quick slants and out-routes, dinking and dunking their way down the field before occasionally attempting a bigger play. While they also had a mobile quarterback in Bryce Perkins, they of course didn’t have the running back threat the Ohio State does.
In any event, I have to think that second-string safety Nolan Turner will see a fair amount of snaps in this game, as he’s actually deceptively solid in pass coverage — more so than Muse, in my opinion. Then of course there’s the aforementioned Simmons, who can drop back there if necessary, depending on how things unfold with Ohio State attempting big completions down the field.
Besides taking vertical shots, Virginia showed us that Fields and company should have opportunities for quick-hitting slants, underneath crossers, and quick outs in the flat to pick up a few yards at a time. This level of patience early on, along with a steady dose of Dobbins, might open up those vertical opportunities against Muse.
LGHL: There’s no denying that Dabo Swinney is one of the two best coaches in college football, but nobody actually buys into his “Nobody respects us. They didn’t want us in the playoff” schtick do they?
Tom Dianora: Well, I do agree that Dabo has exaggerated things, but I think there is some level of truth to what he’s been saying. I think he’s being intentionally hyperbolic to keep his team hungry and motivated, which made a lot of sense throughout the year, since the Tigers had no room for error against a weak (though not by any fault of their own) schedule.
The shred of truth comes into play when you think about how often the UNC game has been brought up throughout the season by the national media, as if Clemson lost that game. Or how often people talk about Trevor Lawrence’s early-season struggles and gloss over the fact that he’s been absolutely lights-out in the second half of the season.
The media already decided he was out of the Heisman race after the first four games. Then you have Travis Etienne, who leads the nation in yards per carry, not even receive the honor of being named a finalist for the Doak Walker Award for best running back?? And, of course, there was Clemson being ranked fifth in the initial CFP rankings despite being undefeated. Did anyone truly think Penn State would have a chance against them if the two teams matched up?
The other piece of this narrative that gives Dabo’s comments some credibility is this: If it were Alabama, or even Ohio State, in this exact same scenario — defending national champions, undefeated, same weakness of schedule — do you think they would have been ranked fifth in the first CFP rankings? Because I don’t. Their brand names seem to carry a bit more respect in spite of what’s transpired over the past four years. While I will say that I think this year’s rankings should only be about this year, I definitely think there are double standards at play.
OK, sorry for the rant, which I’m sure will rile up some folks. :) To sum it up, Dabo has definitely exaggerated things to the point that the comments are even a bit tired, but I definitely do not think they are totally baseless.
LGHL: Ok, the moment of truth, how do you think this game plays out, and what do you think the final score is?
Tom Dianora: As I said earlier, I believe this game is pretty close to 50/50, and that Ohio State will score some points this time. :) Dobbins, Fields, and Young will have their moments, but Lawrence will continue his impeccable play of late while the Clemson defense does enough to secure a 35-30 win for the Tigers.
The No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes will play the No. 3 and defending national champion Clemson Tigers in the College Football layoff semifinal Playstation Fiesta Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 28 at 8 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.