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Ohio State vs. Clemson: 2021 Sugar Bowl game preview and prediction

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The Buckeyes and Tigers meet on Friday night in New Orleans in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl. This will be the fifth time the schools have faced each other, with Ohio State still looking for their first win over the Tigers.

ACC Championship - Clemson v Notre Dame Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

After a season that saw Ohio State play just six games, the Buckeyes impressed the College Football Playoff selection committee enough to earn a second straight trip to college football’s Final Four. There’s no question that when healthy the Buckeyes are one of the four best teams in the nation, some just felt Ohio State wasn’t worthy of a spot because the Buckeyes were only able to play six games this year.

A look back

Last time Ohio State took the field was just under two weeks ago in the Big Ten Championship Game. The Buckeyes were missing nearly two dozen players heading into the game because of positive COVID-19 tests, contact tracing, or injuries. Key players like wide receiver Chris Olave, linebacker Baron Browning, and punter Drue Chrisman were all unavailable for the game against the Wildcats, but all are expected to be ready to go for the Sugar Bowl.

As if those inactives weren’t enough for Ryan Day to deal with, quarterback Justin Fields suffered a sprained thumb against Northwestern, and Master Teague III left the game with an injury. The loss of Teague meant Trey Sermon would have to shoulder more of the load for the Buckeyes, and the Oklahoma transfer was more than up to the task. After rushing for 271 yards in the second half, Sermon’s 331 rushing yards broke Eddie George’s school record of 314 rushing yards, which George set back in 1995 against Illinois. The 271 rushing yards in the second half also eclipsed Ezekiel Elliott’s school record of 243 rushing yards in a half.

For the second straight year, an undefeated Ohio State team trailed their opponent in the Big Ten Championship Game. And just like last year, the Buckeyes shut their opponent out in the second half to secure their spot in the College Football Playoff. Ohio State would go on to beat Northwestern 22-10, marking their fourth straight Big Ten Championship Game win, and their 39th overall Big Ten title.

Series at a glance

Now the Buckeyes will head to New Orleans to take on a familiar foe on New Year’s Day. Ohio State will square off with the Clemson Tigers, who defeated the Buckeyes 29-23 in the Fiesta Bowl. Friday’s meeting will be the third time the schools have met in the College Football Playoff, and the fifth time overall. Clemson has won all four of the previous meetings with Ohio State. The only other teams to play at least four games against Ohio State and hold a winning record are USC, Stanford, and Alabama.

Painful memory

Ohio State jumped out to a 16-0 lead in the first half of last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal against the Tigers before a controversial targeting call on a Shaun Wade hit to Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence turned the tide of the game. After thinking they had initially forced the Tigers to punt, the penalty not only gave Clemson a first down, but also deprived the Buckeyes of the services of Wade for the rest of the game. Clemson would go on to cap off the drive with a Travis Etienne touchdown, giving the Tigers their first points of the game.

The other call by the officials that was heavily scrutinized came with Clemson holding a 21-16 lead with less than five minutes left in the third quarter. It looked as if Jeffrey Okudah had stripped Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross of the football, and safety Jordan Fuller had picked up the fumble and returned it for the touchdown. The officials felt otherwise though, ruling the pass incomplete after review.

The Buckeyes would go on to strike early in the fourth quarter to take the lead when Justin Fields found Chris Olave for a 23-yard touchdown. Ohio State would hold the lead for nearly 10 minutes before Lawrence found Etienne for a 34-yard touchdown pass. The Buckeyes were able get the football down to Clemson’s 23-yard line with 40 seconds to go before Ohio State saw their season end when Justin Fields was picked off for the second time in the game.

Fields finale?

It’s common knowledge that there isn’t much time left in the Justin Fields era at Ohio State. The question is whether there will be one game left or two games. For the second straight season, Fields was named both Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Big Ten Quarterback of the Year. Fields has thrown for 15 touchdowns this year, pushing his Ohio State total to 56 passing touchdowns, tying him with Joe Germaine for third-most in school history. One more touchdown will tie Fields with Bobby Hoying, but J.T. Barrett’s school record of 104 passing touchdowns is out of reach for the junior quarterback.

Take ‘em to church

Ohio State definitely owes their latest Big Ten title to Oklahoma transfer running back Trey Sermon, whose exploits against the Wildcats were highlighted earlier in the preview. The Buckeyes were able to find plenty of success on the ground last year against the Tigers, with J.K. Dobbins rolling up 174 yards and a touchdown on Clemson. After his performance against Northwestern, expect to see Sermon receive most of the carries. Don’t sleep on Master Teague if he’s healthy, though. Teague has something to prove after rushing for just nine yards on seven carries against the Tigers last year.

Dynamic duo

Before Sermon’s monster game against Northwestern, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave had been the main source of offense for Ohio State this year. Wilson and Olave are both averaging over 100 yards receiving per game, making them the only teammates to average triple digits this season. Wilson and Olave have each posted four 100-yard receiving games this year.

Redemption song

Ohio State doesn’t quite have the same pop when one part of the duo is missing, as evidenced by the Big Ten Championship Game. Without Olave, the Buckeye passing attack wasn’t able to gain any traction. The junior wide receiver will be raring to go on Friday, not only because he was forced to miss the Big Ten Championship Game, but also because of the way last year’s Fiesta Bowl ended. With three more receptions, Olave will reach 100 catches in his Ohio State career.

Trench warfare

The most important area Ohio State has to win against Clemson is the battle in the trenches. Clemson has created havoc for opposing offenses, registering 44 sacks and 103 tackles for loss this year, both of which rank second nationally. The Buckeyes have one of the best offensive lines in the country, they’ll just need everyone healthy, which wasn’t the case against Michigan State and Northwestern. Center Josh Myers is a finalist for the Rimington Award, while guard Wyatt Davis has been named a first-team All-American for the second year in a row.

Everybody eats

On the other side of the football, Clemson has to be relieved they won’t have to deal with Chase Young this year. That doesn’t mean the Tigers won’t face some pressure from the Buckeyes. Haskell Garrett was named a first-team All-American by CBS Sports and Pro Football Focus just months after being shot in the face. Defensive tackle Tommy Togiai leads the Buckeyes with three sacks this year, Jonathon Cooper has added 2.5 sacks, and Zach Harrison has two sacks on the season.

The Baron

Ohio State is going to need their senior linebackers to step up and steady the defense against Clemson. The Buckeyes will receive a boost with the return of Baron Browning, who missed the Northwestern game. While leading tacklers Pete Werner and Tuf Borland will look to keep the action in front of them, Browning has the speed and athleticism to slow down Travis Etienne. Browning can also keep eyes on quarterback Trevor Lawrence, much like Malik Harrison did last year.

Wade has been waiting

There’s no question where the weak area on Ohio State’s defense has been this year. The Buckeye secondary has been shredded at times this year. Even with some uneven play, Shaun Wade was still named a first-team All-American this year. Wade has two interceptions on the season, including a pick-six against Indiana. Much like Olave, Wade knows he has unfinished business to take care of after his time in last year’s game was cut short after the targeting call on his hit on Lawrence in the first half.

Ready to breakout

The x-factor in the secondary for Ohio State is safety Josh Proctor. The junior played one of the best games of his Buckeye career against Northwestern, picking off a pass and also dropping an interception that likely would’ve resulted in a touchdown for Proctor. Ohio State has yet to find the steadying force at safety like they’ve had the last few years with Jordan Fuller, but there’s no question that Proctor is improving as he sees more playing time.

A playoff fixture

They might as well change the name of the College Football Playoff to the Clemson Football Playoff. After missing out on the fun in the first year of the playoff, the Tigers have made the four-team playoff in each of the last six years. Clemson has won six playoff games, made four title games, and earned two championships, all of which are tied for the most in college football with Alabama. Aside from the Tigers and Crimson Tide, no other school has won more than two playoff games.

Clemson’s concerning bowl streaks

For all of the success Clemson has had in bowl games over the years, the Tigers will be trying to exercise some New Orleans demons. One bowl Clemson hasn’t been able to win is the Sugar Bowl. The Tigers last appeared in the Sugar Bowl in 2018, losing to Alabama 24-6 in the College Football Playoff semifinal. Overall Clemson is 3-8 in New Orleans, with their last appearance in the Crescent City coming 12 months ago in the 2020 College Football Playoff Championship Game against LSU. Clemson fell to Joe Burrow and the Tigers 42-25 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Tigers will also be looking to snap a five-game New Year’s Day bowl losing streak. The last time Clemson appeared in a New Year’s Day bowl was back in 2018 in the Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama. The last win on New Year’s Day for Clemson came all the way back in 1990 when they defeated Illinois 30-0 in the Hall of Fame Bowl.

Terrific T-Law

Heisman Trophy finalist Trevor Lawrence will be making his fifth start in the College Football Playoff, winning his first three starts before the Tigers lost to LSU last year. The loss is the only blemish on Lawrence’s 34-1 record as a starting quarterback. Even with the loss, Lawrence still has yet to throw an interception in a College Football Playoff game, throwing for 1,167 yards and eight touchdowns in 141 pass attempts.

Lawrence started nine games this year for Clemson, missing contests against Boston College and Notre Dame after testing positive for COVID-19. The junior passed for 22 touchdowns this year, and added seven scores on the ground. Not only will three more touchdown passes tie Deshaun Watson’s school record of 90 passing touchdowns, 302 more passing yards will make Lawrence the third Clemson quarterback to pass for 10,000 yards in his career. Lawrence has thrown three touchdown passes or more in 18 games during his Clemson career, with the Tigers winning all 18 of those games.

Clemson’s offensive coordinator Tony Elliott will miss the Sugar Bowl after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this week. The positive result would be a little more concerning for Clemson if they didn’t have a quarterback like Lawrence in the fold. Quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter will move up to the press box to call the plays, and while there possibly be a few early hiccups, expect Lawrence and his position coach to fall into a rhythm rather quickly.

Etienne’s final act

As if having to deal with Lawrence wasn’t tough enough, Clemson also forces opponents to gameplan for running Travis Etienne. The Paul Hornung Award finalist is the only FBS player with 850 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving this year. Etienne is 118 rushing yards away from becoming the first Clemson running back with three seasons of at least 1,000 yards rushing. The senior has 4,920 career rushing yards, and if he gets 80 more rushing yards he would become the first ACC running back to reach 5,000 yards rushing, and the 23rd player to reach that mark in FBS history.

A-one Amari

Ohio State will get a little bit of a break because they won’t have to deal with wide receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross this year. Higgins has moved on to the NFL, while Ross suffered a spinal injury which has sidelined him for the season. Stepping up as Lawrence’s favorite target this year has been Amari Rodgers, who has 69 catches for 966 yards and seven scores this year. If Rodgers adds 34 more receiving yards to his season total, he’ll become the 12th Clemson receiver to reach 1,000 yards in a season.

The Buckeyes did see Rodgers last year in the Fiesta Bowl, but he wasn’t the same receiver as they’ll see on Friday. Rodgers suffered a torn ACL in the spring last year, and somehow was able to return to the field against Texas A&M early in the season. Even though Rodgers was healthy enough to play, his quick turnaround time didn’t allow him to fully recover from the injury, something he has been able to do this year in the offseason.

Joining Rodgers at wide receiver is Cornell Powell, who has hauled in 45 catches for 743 yards and five touchdowns this year. If the Tigers are able to get into the red zone, Ohio State is going to have to keep tabs on tight end Davis Allen, who has just 14 catches on the season, with four of them going for touchdowns. In a way, Allen is like Clemson’s version of Jeremy Ruckert.

Clemson’s colossais

Clemson has done a great job of keeping their quarterbacks clean this year, allowing just 18 sacks in 11 games. A familiar name to Ohio State fans lining up at left tackle for the Tigers is Jackson Carman. The junior was rated as the best collegiate prospect coming out of high school, and originally was an Ohio State target before he signed with Clemson. After earning third-team All-ACC honors last year, Carman moved up to second-team All-ACC this year.

If the Buckeyes want to put some pressure on Lawrence, they’ll likely need to do so on the right side of the offensive line. Right tackle Jordan McFadden and right guard Will Putnam are both sophomores. Even though the duo doesn’t have as much experience as Carman, left guard Matt Bockhorst, and center Cade Foster, together the five form a strong unit.

Sack attack

Clemson doesn’t have a big star on the defensive line like Ohio State did with Chase Young last year. Instead, the Tigers have a bunch of guys who can create pressure. The Tigers have 44 sacks on the season, but the Tigers don’t have a player with more than four sacks on the season.

Fabulous freshmen

If you wanted to identify the best player on the Clemson defensive line, it would have to be freshman defensive end Myles Murphy, who has a team-high four sacks this year. Even more impressive is Murphy has forced three fumbles this year, which is the most by a player under Dabo Swinney, and the most by a Clemson freshman since Ed McDaniel in 1988.

Joining Murphy as a freshman force on the defensive line is Bryan Bresee. The defensive tackle has four tackles for loss, three sacks, and a forced fumble so far this year. With the combination of Murphy and Bresee making noise early on in their careers for the Tigers, Clemson is going to continue being a force on the defensive end for the foreseeable future.

Bruise Brothers

Leading Clemson in tackles this year is Baylon Spector, who has 67 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks this year. Spector has combined with James Skalski, with Swinney naming the combination the “Bruise Brothers”. Skalski did miss some time earlier in the season with a groin injury, but should be healthy for Friday’s game. The Tigers are going to need Skalski as close to 100% as possible since backup linebacker Jake Venables was lost for the season after suffering a broken arm against Pitt.

Nolan & friends

There is no question who the quarterback of the Clemson secondary is. Senior Nolan Turner is second on the team with 61 tackles this year, and the safety has three of Clemson’s 13 interceptions this season. Turner earned first-team All-ACC honors, along with cornerback Derion Kendrick. Aside from Turner and Kendrick, expect to see the Tigers shuttle in a number of defensive backs, since there is plenty of talent on the roster, and Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables try and maximize the talent by getting a number of players involved.

Summary

This game is so tough to call because of how different the seasons were for both teams. Clemson was able to play nearly a full schedule, while Ohio State only played six games in a schedule that featured a number of stops and starts. Will the 13 days between the Big Ten Championship Game and the Sugar Bowl for Ohio State to iron out some of the inconsistencies? Who will be back for this game that was missing against Northwestern? These are just a few of the many questions that are weighing on the minds of Buckeye Nation.

There’s no question that Ohio State can match Clemson’s talent. Motivation shouldn’t be a problem for the Buckeyes, either. As if losing to the Tigers last year wasn’t hard enough to stomach, Dabo Swinney is throwing fuel on the fire with some of his comments about Ohio State not belonging in the College Football Playoff. While Ryan Day is certainly going to use this to fire up his team, he can’t allow Swinney’s disrespect to get his team overhyped.

This is a game that is going to be another one that comes down to the wire. Trevor Lawrence gets the nod in the quarterback battle, but Justin Fields can still bring it. The difference is, Wilson and Olave this year could be what Higgins and Ross were for Lawrence last year. With the quarterbacks essentially canceling each other out, this game could come down to the running game.

Ohio State knows they are going to have their hands full trying to slow down Travis Etienne, who is one of the most dynamic players in ACC history. What remains to be seen is if Trey Sermon’s insane performance against Northwestern a one hit wonder, or will Sermon get even stronger with the Buckeye offensive line at full strength?

As enticing as it would be to take Ohio State here, another heartbreaking loss looks to be in order for the Buckeyes. The secondary isn’t quite as strong as we have seen in recent years, which has to been an area Clemson will target early and often. Even though he has said his thumb is fine, the injury Fields suffered in the Big Ten Championship Game is concerning. If somehow the injury gets re-aggravated early on, it could make for a long game, since Clemson can focus more on the run. The Buckeyes keep pace, they just don’t have quite enough at the end to top Clemson.

LGHL Prediction: Clemson 31, Ohio State 27