PHOENIX (WIS) - It’s almost become a tradition for the Clemson Tigers to find themselves competing for a national championship every year.
While the Tigers have managed to accomplish their goals throughout the last few years, the goal of winning the closer has been one of the biggest for the team. Clemson has won two of the last three national championships and they are looking to add one more to their collection held in the Allen N. Reeves Football Complex. To guarantee themselves a shot at doing so, they’ll have to get past No. 2 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
“Everybody's excited about playing and looking forward to a great night Saturday night," said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. "It's going to be a heck of a ball game, two great teams that I think really are kind of mirror images of each other in a lot of ways, and probably come down to a few plays."
Like Clemson, the Buckeyes enter Saturday’s national semifinal with a 13-0 record. The Big Ten champions are making their first appearance in the College Football Playoff since 2017. Ironically, OSU was ousted from that playoff by Clemson thanks to a 31-0 loss. Nevertheless, the Buckeyes aren’t focusing on the past as they prepare for one of their toughest tests yet against a Clemson squad favored in the betting odds.
“I think it's just a challenge that we welcome," said Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah. "I think underdog, favored, when the ball gets kicked, you have to play football. So we're ready for that. We're confident in what we're going to be able to do."
Ohio State enters the game ranked fifth in the nation in total offense (531 yards per game) and the country’s best scoring offense (48.7 points per game). Former Georgia quarterback Justin Fields has led the offense to success throughout the year. The Heisman Trophy finalist tallied 2,953 passing yards and 40 touchdowns this season while rushing for 471 yards and 10 touchdowns on 123 carries. His ability to create problems for defense with his arm and with his legs has not gone unnoticed by the Tigers.
“We're prepared for him to obviously play the best game of the season,” said Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons. “That's what everybody is here obviously to do. So like I said, we're going to prepare for the greatest run ever.”
Another weapon the Buckeyes will have at their disposal is running back JK Dobbins. The junior running back was the team’s leading rusher with 1,829 yards and 20 touchdowns. The Doak Walker Award finalist has been instrumental in helping the Buckeyes reach this point.
Defensively, the Buckeyes have been stingy this year. Ohio State is the second-best defensive unit in the country in total defense (247.6 yards allowed per game) and third in the nation in scoring defense (12.5 points allowed per game). Chase Young, another Heisman finalist for the Buckeyes, has been a terror for opposing defenses. Young leads the team with 16.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Even with Young’s talent, the Tigers understand Young won’t be the only one they’ll need to worry about.
“They're really good. They're really talented,” said Clemson offensive lineman John Simpson. I feel like a lot of them are overlooked because of Chase Young. They're talented throughout the whole line. They've got some playmakers.”
Clemson’s pass attack will be challenged as well. The Ohio State secondary is tied for 10th in the nation in passes intercepted. For Ohio State, the key will be setting the tone early and remaining even-keeled emotionally.
“Everybody wants to be the team that sets the tone. But it’s a heavyweight fight,” Okudah said. “If they punch us, we’ll brush it off, get back up. We’ll throw our punch. We’ll just see who recovers better from that first punch.”
Clemson faces Ohio State in the Playstation Fiesta Bowl on Saturday at 8 p.m. Check your local listings for details.