Fiesta Bowl preview: Ohio State vs. Clemson semifinal should be epic

Fiesta Bowl preview: Ohio State vs. Clemson semifinal should be epic

Find a better postseason matchup than this. I dare you. You can’t. So don’t try. This playoff game between ACC champ and No. 2 seed Clemson and No. 3 Ohio State, the first team to make the playoff without winning a conference championship, should … be … epic.

Each team overcame a tough loss to make the playoff. Clemson fell at home to Pitt in November, while the Buckeyes got shocked at Penn State in October. But each is standing tall in the playoff.

This clash drips with intrigue. It begins with a classic matchup of top quarterbacks, with Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett facing off with Clemson Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson. Each is a dynamic playmaker who can make things happen with their arm and feet, though Watson is the superior passer who has enjoyed the better season. And both are led by top coaches, with Dabo Swinney guiding Clemson and Urban Meyer pacing the Buckeyes. Swinney has the Tigers in the playoff for a second season in succession, while Meyer is here for the second time in three years as he searches for a fourth national championship.

This game could come down to defense, as each school is excellent on that side of the ball. Ohio State is fourth nationally in total defense, allowing 282.3 yards per game, and Clemson is ninth at 313.9. Can these boffo defenses slow down the prolific offenses?

These teams met just three years ago in the Orange Bowl after the 2013 season. In that one, the Tigers prevailed, 40-35. The Buckeyes failed to make the playoff last year, while Clemson lost the national championship game to Alabama. Of course, this series history can’t be recounted without mentioning the infamous 1978 Gator Bowl, won by the Tigers but famous for Woody Hayes socking a Clemson player and then abruptly stepping down in what would be the final game of his iconic career.

The winner of this season’s meeting will take on the victor from the other playoff game in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Washington on Jan. 9 in Tampa for the national championship.

This will be Clemson’s 12th straight bowl appearance. It won the 1981 national title under Danny Ford. Ohio State toppled Notre Dame 44-28 in the Fiesta Bowl last season after winning the inaugural CFP championship the year before. The Buckeyes will be playing their 16th bowl game in 17 seasons.

Also, here’s the full 2016-17 bowl schedule.

Ohio State (11-1) vs. Clemson (12-1): 7 p.m. ET, Dec. 31, Glendale, Arizona

Player to watch: Yes, Buckeye jack-of-all-trades Curtis Samuel must excel, as he is dynamic as a pass catcher and runner. But let’s go with Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett, the Big Ten Quarterback of the Year. When the going gets tough, Barrett becomes a one-man gang, often carrying the Buckeyes to victory with 25 or 30 carries a game. Seeing as how this is a BIG game, look for Barrett to have at least 25 carries. Clemson LB Ben Boulware will track Barrett. Still, Ohio State isn’t gonna win this game if it can make some big passes, which has been an issue all season. The receivers have not stepped up for the Buckeyes, whose ability to stretch the field has been inconsistent all season. WR Noah Brown will need a big game.

Best individual matchup: Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan vs. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson. Yes, it’s gonna take more than McMillan to mute the ample skills of Watson, but he’s gonna have to lead the charge. Watson has completed 67 percent of his passes for 37 TDs with 15 interceptions. Even better: He has the improvisational ability to counter any scheme Ohio State can draw up defense. Watson has seen it all.

Best unit matchup: Ohio State secondary vs. Clemson wideouts. Tons of athletic ability will be on display here. Ohio State may have the best secondary in America, led by S Malik Hooker and CBs Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley. Hooker is ballhawk who has a Big Ten-high six picks with three returned for TDs. Clemson has targets like Mike Williams (84 catches for 1,171 yards and 10 TDs) and Artavis Scott (71 catches for 592 yards). Plus, Clemson has Jordan Leggett, one of the nation’s top tight ends. At 6-5, 260, the guy is mismatch who is coming off a big effort in Clemson’s ACC title game vs. Virginia Tech. You will be hard-pressed to find many pass-catching corps better than this one.

Number: 46, sacks by Clemson, which is No. 2 in the nation. The Tigers will unleash defensive line forces like Christian Wilkins, Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence at Buckeye QB J.T. Barrett, who works behind a line that at times can be shaky. Pat Elflein, the Rimington Award winner as the nation’s top center, must lead the charge for the Buckeye front.

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Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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