Clemson, Ohio State to battle in Sugar Bowl for spot in national title game

Dabo Swinney smiles on the sideline during the ACC Championship Game at Bank of America Stadium...
Dabo Swinney smiles on the sideline during the ACC Championship Game at Bank of America Stadium on December 20, 2020.(Pool Photo)
Published: Dec. 31, 2020 at 11:45 PM EST
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NEW ORLEANS (WIS) - For the sixth consecutive year, Clemson finds itself one win away from playing for the College Football Playoff National Championship.

This season, they return to New Orleans, which was the site of their last postseason loss. Nearly a year ago, Dabo Swinney and the Tigers fell short of capturing a third national championship after losing to LSU in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. This year, the Tigers hope to put that bad memory behind them and punch their ticket to the national title game in Miami.

“We’re motivated by winning just as much as we are losing,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. “We’ve won a national championship. That’s pretty motivating. You want to go do it again. And...we lost right here last year, and that’s pretty motivating, too. So I think that every year you start over, and the goal is to be the best you can be. Our goals are laid out and

pretty simple, but allow us to compete at the highest level, and everything goes to winning our league. That’s where it starts.”

To get there, the Tigers will have to take down a familiar foe in Ohio State. Leading into Friday’s game, the Tigers are 4-0 all-time against the Buckeyes with their most recent win coming last season in the Fiesta Bowl.

The third-ranked Buckeyes were 6-0 in a season that saw postponements and cancellations in conferences across the country. Still, Ryan Day and the Big Ten champions are looking to prove that they belong among the top four teams in the country.

“When you get into a stage where you are playing against great competition, there’s going to be a lot of conversation leading up to the game,” said Day, the Buckeyes head coach. “That’s what makes college football so great. I think our guys are excited to play in this game, regardless of the situation or what leads up to it. You are in the CFP and you are playing for the national championship.”

The Buckeyes are led offensively by Justin Fields. The former Georgia quarterback has completed just short of 73% of his passes for 1,521 yards with 15 passing touchdowns and five interceptions. He is also the third-leading rusher with Ohio State with 67 carries for 274 yards and five touchdowns.

Fields is joined by Trey Sermon, who leads the Buckeyes in rushing with 84 carries for 675 yards and three scores. In the Big Ten title game, Sermon rushed for 331 yards and two touchdowns against Northwestern

“I think you saw the best version of Trey,” Day said. “And it was great to see him because it didn’t all come right away for him. He was a grad transfer that comes in, expecting to just come in and pick up where J.K. left off. And that didn’t happen for him. He kept working. He never came in my office one time and complained about carries. Just kept going to work, getting better every day. To see him run the way he did last game was awesome. Hopefully, he keeps building from there.”

In the passing game, Fields will have receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave as his top targets. Wilson leads the team with 38 catches for 621 yards and five touchdowns. Olave is the Buckeyes’ second-leading receiver with 36 catches for 528 yards and five touchdowns.

However, the Tigers have been among the nation’s top defenses this season. They’ve given up an average of 17.5 points per game.

As for the Tigers’ offense, they’ll be missing a key component with offensive coordinator Tony Elliott not making the trip to the Big Easy this week due to COVID-19. With Elliott out, Brandon Streeter will fill in calling plays for the offense.

This year, Clemson has been one of the best offensive teams in the country. They average nearly 45 points and about 507 yards per game. Clemson is led by Heisman hopeful Trevor Lawrence who has completed just over 69% of his passes for 2,753 yards and 22 touchdowns.

Lawrence is joined in the backfield by Louisiana product Travis Etienne. The Tigers’ senior tailback returned for his final year and has rushed for 882 yards and 13 touchdowns this year.

“We started the year here,” Swinney said as he spoke about Etienne. “We started this 2020 year right here in New Orleans, and hopefully we can get a better result as we finish it. And I know that’s something that he really wants. And I know he’s going to put his best foot forward to play a great game.”

Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell lead a talented Clemson receiving corps into Friday’s contest. Rodgers had 69 catches for 966 yards and seven touchdowns while Powell has collected 45 catches for 743 yards and five touchdowns.

For Clemson, this may be a playoff semifinal, but the Tigers plan to treat this game just like all the others they’ve played in the past in hopes of coming away with a victory.

“The same things that won the other games, they win this game,” Swinney said. “It still comes down to execution and playing with precision. It’s a game of emotion, but you don’t want to be emotional. And I think you lose your focus there.”

Clemson will take on Ohio State at 8 p.m. on ESPN.

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