SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When it comes to the three games that make up the College Football Playoff, everyone seems to know what they think is going to happen in two of them and everyone seems to be saying they don’t know what’s going to happen in the other one.
The sure things for most people are Alabama beating Washington in today’s first semifinal and the Crimson Tide then beating whoever comes out of today’s other semifinal between Ohio State and Clemson in tonight’s Fiesta Bowl.
The idea that Alabama is invincible might be a little overdone. But the unpredictability of the OSU-Clemson game is probably right on target.
Tonight’s game matches two teams whose won-loss records say they have been consistently among the best college football teams in the country this season.
No. 2 Clemson comes into the game with a 12-1 record. Ohio State is 11-1 since it did not play in a conference championship game.
The fact that the two teams appear to be closely matched should mean this will turn out to be a close game.
But even the losses by the two teams lean toward unpredictability. Clemson was a 21-point favorite when it was beaten 43-42 by Pittsburgh on Nov. 12. Ohio State was a 17-point favorite when it lost 24-21 to Penn State on Oct. 22.
Clemson is trying to return to the College Football Playoff national championship game for the second year in a row after losing 45-40 to Alabama in last season’s title game.
Ohio State is attempting to repeat its national championship run in the 2014 season after being kept out of the playoff by a loss to Michigan State in 2015.
The Buckeyes and Tigers didn’t get the championship last year but they dominated in the NFL draft. OSU had 12 players selected, including five in the first round, and Clemson was second with nine players taken.
With that in mind, there is even an element of unpredictability in both of them being in the playoff.
So, what does Ohio State have to do to beat Clemson in a rematch of the 2014 Orange Bowl and move on to play the Alabama-Washington winner?
First, OSU’s passing game has to be more effective than it has been most of the season.
Statistically speaking, that might sound strange since J.T. Barrett has passed for 2,428 yards and 24 touchdowns and has been intercepted only five times.
But it doesn’t take a passing game guru studying film for hours to see that Ohio State does not throw the ball deep well and when it does Curtis Samuel is the only receiver who consistently catches the passes.
Without some passing threat, Clemson’s big, talented defensive line and linebackers can load up to try to stop Barrett and Mike Weber in the run game.
One theory is that Ohio State will play faster and move people around before the snap to try to confuse Clemson’s defense.
Second, OSU’s defensive line has to get some pressure on Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (3,914 yards, 37 touchdown passes).
As Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said this week, “When a quarterback plays comfortable, that’s a problem. So, you have to confuse a quarterback. If you change things up and make a guy like that uncomfortable, you have a shot.”
Third, Ohio State has to keep Clemson’s defensive line from pressuring Barrett or jamming the run game.
The Tigers have 46 sacks this season, second in the country, and Ohio State permitted eight sacks in the Michigan game and six in its loss at Penn State.
Sophomore right tackle Isaiah Prince has been a particular target of opposing defenses and he will have to pick up his game against Clemson.
Fourth, Ohio State’s defensive backs, who have 19 interceptions, will have to at least play to a draw with Clemson’s receivers group, which goes six deep if you include the tight end, Jordan Leggett, who has more catches than Ohio State’s leading wide receiver, Noah Brown.
If OSU can do most or all of those things, it could win. But it will be close.
The prediction: Ohio State 31, Clemson 28.