The time has finally arrived. Even through all of the craziness that has been the 2020 college football season, the game many had hoped to see once more following the conclusion of last year’s Fiesta Bowl has somehow made its way to us despite all the trials and tribulations.
For Ohio State, this game is about redemption and respect. The Buckeyes probably should have come away victorious last time around, and now nobody is giving them a chance in the rematch with all the pieces they lost to the NFL. For Clemson, it is about maintaining their undefeated record against the boys from Columbus. Dabo Swinney doesn’t think Ohio State deserves to be in the College Football Playoff, and his team will be looking to provide them an early exit.
You know the big names on the Tigers’ roster. Trevor Lawrence is the best quarterback in college football, and has been for quite some time. Travis Etienne has been a stalwart of the Clemson backfield, breaking the ACC rushing record this season as he eclipsed over 4,900 yards in his career. But who else should you be keeping an eye on as the Buckeyes embark on their national title hunt against a familiar foe?
Offensive Player to Watch: Amari Rodgers
Clemson’s wide receiver core took a big hit this past offseason. Tee Higgins was their No. 1 guy a year ago as a 1,000-yard receiver, but he is now playing for the Cincinnati Bengals where he has put together a strong rookie season. The guy right behind him, Justyn Ross, was expected to slide into that top spot this year, but was forced to miss the entire season after needing surgery to correct a spinal condition known as congenital fusion. That left senior wideout Amari Rodgers at the top of the depth chart.
Rodgers was the fourth-leading receiver on the team last season, finishing six yards short of the third spot to Etienne, whom the Tigers use heavily in the passing game. The senior has more than doubled his output from a year ago, catching a nice 69 passes for 966 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020. A former four-star recruit, Rodgers is a shorter receiver at 5-foot-10, but despite his size he is sneaky strong and features excellent start-and-stop speed. He is a great route runner, and his run after the catch ability is something the Ohio State defense will have to limit.
The Clemson passing offense is very similar to Ohio State’s, where it’s really two main guys and then everyone else. That other guy is Cornell Powell, who has 45 catches for 743 yards and five TDs on the year. As previously mentioned, Etienne is a regular fixture in the passing game as well, catching 44 passes for 524 yards and two TDs this season in addition to his 882 rushing yards and 13 TDs on the ground. Of course, everything the Tigers do runs through Lawrence, who has passed for over 2,700 yards with 22 TDs to just four INTs.
Defensive Player to Watch: Baylon Spector
Not quite suffering the same magnitude of losses Ohio State experienced on the defensive side of the ball with guys like Chase Young, Jeff Okudah and Jordan Fuller all leaving for the NFL, Clemson did lose their biggest name on defense this past offseason in safety/linebacker hybrid Isaiah Simmons. The team’s leading tackler from a year ago with a whopping 104 tackles, Simmons had one of the two interceptions of Justin Fields in the Fiesta Bowl. How have the Tigers replaced some of his production?
A lot of the talk surrounding Clemson’s defense this season has centered around guys like James Skalski, Nolan Turner and a strong defensive line, but their leading tackler is actually linebacker Baylon Spector. Besides having one of the best names in the sport, Spector has accumulated 61 total tackles this year with an impressive 9.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, a pass breakup and a fumble recovery. A former three-star recruit, Spector has become one of the best run-stoppers in college football, and will be an important guy to watch as Ohio State looks to get Trey Sermon going again.
Of course, you can't talk about this Tigers defense without also talking about Skalski and Turner. Skalski is very much Clemson’s Tuf Borland — the quarterback of the defense and someone the whole unit looks to for guidance. Turner, who picked off the game-ending pass in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, will miss the first half of the Sugar Bowl after being ejected for targeting in the second half of the ACC title game. The safety is second on the team this year with 51 tackles and leads the Tigers with three interceptions. Clemson also features one of the nation’s strongest defense lines, led by K.J. Henry and Myles Murphy at the end spots.