GLENDALE, AZ (WIS) - As New Year's Eve was coming to a close a year ago, Clemson celebrated their first to the National Championship in Miami by dancing and tossing oranges in the crowd.
It's a feeling that many of those players remember vividly. Now, many of those same players have returned to Glendale, Arizona, the site of last season's championship game, to take on Ohio State for the opportunity to play in the biggest game of the year.
"This is Ohio State," said Dabo Swinney.."I think that their brand speaks for themselves. They've earned that. I think percentage-wise they're the winningest team in the country since, like, 1950.
So program-wise, they're right there at the top. And then their coaching staff is tremendous. I know several of those guys and got a lot of respect for Coach Meyer. He rarely ever loses."
In fact, the Buckeyes have only lost five games under Urban Meyer in his five seasons in Columbus. But while part of that success comes from great coaching, the other part of that success has been produced by great talent and there's no shortage of that on the Buckeyes roster.
The OSU offense is driven by quarterback J.T. Barrett. The 6-2, 222-pound junior has thrown for 2,428 yards and 24 touchdowns while completing nearly 62 percent of his passes. He has also run for 847 yards and nine touchdowns.
However, Barrett has a ton of weapons around him that Clemson has to be aware of. For starters, redshirt freshman running back Mike Weber has rushed for 1,072 yards and is tied for the team lead for rushing touchdowns with nine. Junior H-Back Curtis Samuel has been a threat in the backfield and flanking the offensive formation. He has rushed for over 700 yards while leading the team with 65 catches for 822 yards and seven touchdowns. These three players alone can single-handedly change the complexion of a game.
"I think they've got a great complement of players that they use it the right way," said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. "And on any particular play they've got a run-pass option, the RPOs. So if you spin that safety down, the backer bites the V gap, and they can throw it right over your head in one-on-one coverage."
The Buckeyes average over 42 points per game, but the Tigers haven't exactly been charitable in that department. The Clemson defense is currently 11th in the nation in scoring defense allowing 18.4 points per game. Behind the play of tackles leader Ben Boulware (114) and sacks leader Carlos Watkins (8.5), the Tigers are well-versed with putting pressure on opposing offenses with Venables dialing up schemes.
"Yeah, I think he doesn't have tendencies," said Buckeyes offensive coordinator Ed Warinner. "If you really study the whole body of work for the season, it's hard to say that they have tremendous tendencies, which I think is intentional. And I think that's also what makes them good is they have really good players and they aren't predictable. Therefore, they're hard to game plan."
But Ohio State has also been stout on defense as well. Ranked third in the nation, the Buckeyes surrender just 14.2 points per game.
"Very sound," said Tigers co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott. "They've got a great scheme. They don't give up any easy plays. You have to earn every yard that you get. That's the biggest thing watching video with the wide receivers is there's not a lot of wide open wide receivers just running around."
The Buckeyes are led in tackles by junior linebacker Raekwon McMillan with 87 tackles. He is joined by junior defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis, who leads OSU with 10 sacks. Like Clemson has provided their opposition with a number of different looks on defense making it difficult to plan for.
"I think what I would say that they do the best job of is they disguise their looks probably as well as anybody that we've ever played, where pre-snap it looks the same," said Scott. "But on the snap they're changing into something else.
"And I think when you have that, it really puts a lot of pressure on your quarterback to be able to make those decisions quickly. And also the wide receivers have to be tied in. Because at the beginning of the snap the coverage looks the same just about on every play, but whenever the ball is snapped, there's about four or five different coverages that they can get to right as the ball's snapped."
Clemson will face Ohio State at 7 p.m. in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl on NewYear's Eve on ESPN. The winner will face Alabama or Washington in the National Championship game in Tampa, Fla.