No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Clemson: Fiesta Bowl preview and picks against the spread

No. 2 Ohio State (13-0) vs. No. 3 Clemson (13-0)

Location: Glendale, Ariz. | When: Dec. 28 (8 p.m. ET) | TV: ESPN | Line: Clemson -2.5

HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE

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Ohio State: Ohio State, in its first year of the Ryan Day era, had an absolutely dominant run through the Big Ten en route to its third College Football Playoff appearance. The Buckeyes, with Georgia transfer Justin Fields thriving at quarterback and Chase Young wreaking havoc coming off the edge, won their first 10 games by an average margin of 41.7 points, jumping up to No. 2 in the country by late November. 

Ohio State emerged with a hard-fought 28-17 victory over No. 8 Penn State on Nov. 23 to clinch the Big Ten East and move up to No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings. From there, OSU capped off an undefeated regular season by trouncing rival Michigan, then the No. 13 team in the nation, 56-27 in Ann Arbor. In the Big Ten title game, Ohio State fell behind Wisconsin, a team it beat 38-7 back in October, 21-7 at halftime. The Buckeyes stormed back to win 34-21, but ended up dropping to No. 2 behind LSU in the final CFP rankings. 

Clemson: Clemson enters the College Football Playoff — its fifth consecutive playoff appearance — on a remarkable 28-game winning streak. The Tigers cruised to a national championship a year ago, trouncing Notre Dame in the semifinal and Alabama in the title game, and kept things rolling in 2019. Other than a near-upset at North Carolina on Sept. 28, Clemson dominated every team it played this season. 

Even when you include the 21-20 win over UNC, Clemson averaged a 35.9-point margin of victory over the course of the season, capped off by a 62-17 win over Virginia in the ACC title game. Was the ACC down this season? Sure, but Clemson still played at an elite level — especially over the second half of the season. The strength of schedule — coupled with undefeated runs from LSU and Ohio State — ultimately kept Clemson from the top of the CFP rankings. Dabo Swinney used that to his advantage, playing up the disrespect card to an extreme level. But if it has his team motivated heading into another CFP, it will all be worth it. 

Clemson enters the College Football Playoff — its fifth consecutive playoff appearance — on a remarkable 28-game winning streak. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Clemson enters the College Football Playoff — its fifth consecutive playoff appearance — on a remarkable 28-game winning streak. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH

This is the best No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup in the six-year history of the College Football Playoff. Ohio State and Clemson would have a legitimate case to be the No. 1 team in the country in the other seasons of the CFP’s existence, but we’re lucky enough to have them meet in a semifinal this time around.

This game features two of the top five offenses in the country going up against the top two defenses in the country. Clemson puts up 547.7 yards per game, the third-best in the country while Ohio State averages 531 yards per game, No. 5 in the nation. In terms of total defense, Clemson ranks No. 1 (244.7 ypg) with Ohio State just behind at No. 2 (247.6 ypg). On top of that, this game features five players who finished in the top 10 of Heisman voting.

On the Ohio State side is Fields, Young and running back J.K. Dobbins. Fields put up a remarkable 40-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his first season as a starter while Young leads the nation with 16.5 sacks and Dobbins’ 1,829 rushing yards is third nationally. Meanwhile, Clemson’s offense is led by quarterback Trevor Lawrence (3,172 yards, 34 TDs) and RB Travis Etienne (1,500 yards, 17 TDs). 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins: With Justin Fields nursing a knee sprain (he admitted he’s only about 80-85 percent healthy), a big part of his game may be limited. Fields’ ability as a runner — 471 yards and 10 TDs — not only opens up Ohio State’s offense, but it keeps drives alive with his ability to scramble. With Fields a bit hampered, J.K. Dobbins becomes even more important. The Buckeyes leaned heavily on Dobbins late in the year. He carried more than 30 times in OSU’s final three games, going for 540 yards and seven touchdowns on 100 carries in wins over Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. 

Clemson LB Isaiah Simmons: Clemson teams of recent years were known for having a ridiculous amount of talent on the defensive line. This year, the Tigers are stronger in the back seven than up front. While cornerback A.J. Terrell and safety Tanner Muse both earned first-team All-ACC honors, linebacker Isaiah Simmons was the conference’s defensive player of the year. Simmons, a likely first-round pick in the 2020 NFL draft, does a little bit of everything for the Clemson defense. He led the team with 93 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. He also has two interceptions, six passes defended, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery on the year. 

Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins is third nationally with 1,829 rushing yards. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins is third nationally with 1,829 rushing yards. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

NFL DRAFT PROSPECT

Clemson RB Travis Etienne: This game features two backs, Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins and Etienne, who could be vying for draft supremacy in 2020. Right now, Dobbins feels like the more important player to his respective team in this game, but Etienne has a chance to steal the spotlight if Ohio State sells out to try to slow down the Tigers’ brilliant passing game. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound back hits the hold extremely hard and fast as a runner and can slice up a defense — even one as good as OSU’s — with one sharp cut. The questions on Etienne as a prospect come with his value in the passing game, so it will be interesting to see how he holds up in that area, especially in pass protecting against Chase Young and the Buckeyes’ great pass rushers.

- Eric Edholm

WHAT’S ON THE LINE

Ohio State: Ohio State is in the College Football Playoff for the third time. As the No. 4 seed back in 2014, the Buckeyes knocked off Alabama in the semifinal and Oregon to win the national championship. The Buckeyes returned in 2016 as the No. 3 seed but were blown out by Clemson in the semifinal, 31-0. Both of those appearances came under Urban Meyer. Now with Ryan Day as head coach, the Buckeyes have the chance to get back to the top of the college football mountain. 

Clemson: Clemson can advance to the College Football Playoff title game for the fourth time. The Tigers lost a classic to Alabama, 45-40, in 2015 before returning the favor with a 35-31 triumph over the Crimson Tide in 2016. The third game in the Alabama-Clemson title game trilogy was a blowout. Led by Lawrence, then a true freshman, and his array of excellent receivers, Clemson trounced the Tide 44-16 to capture its second national title under Swinney. A win over the Buckeyes will give the Tigers a chance for another college football crown. 

PICKS

Nick Bromberg: Clemson -2.5

Sam Cooper: Clemson -2.5

Picks from the Yahoo Sports College Podcast

Pat Forde: Clemson -2

Pete Thamel: Ohio State +2

Dan Wetzel: Clemson -2

Sean Sullivan: Ohio State +2

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