Breaking down the Buckeyes: Q&A Fiesta Bowl preview with Eleven Warriors beat writer
|Friday, December 27, 2019, 7:01 PM- -|
We’re closing in on kickoff between the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes and No. 3 Clemson Tigers (8 p.m. ET Saturday/ESPN).
Dan Hope, senior reporter at Ohio State athletics site Eleven Warriors, gives the lowdown for us on the undefeated Buckeyes and his breakdown for the game.
Hope gives a unique perspective as he covered Clemson with Orange & White and the Anderson Independent Mail during the 2015 and 2016 seasons between stints covering the Buckeyes.
TNet: Ohio State has been leading the way in a number of metrics this season and finished the regular-season undefeated. The seeds are already in, but what did you see as their case for being college football's best team?
Hope: I would have voted for Ohio State to be the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff because I believe their combination of statistics and big wins gave the Buckeyes the most complete resume among the three undefeated teams. You can argue that LSU's wins over Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Auburn were more impressive than Ohio State's wins over Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan and Cincinnati – which the committee ultimately decided was enough to give LSU the top seed – but the Buckeyes are a more complete team with a better defense. You can argue that Clemson is the most complete team in college football – statistically, Ohio State and Clemson are just about neck-and-neck – but Clemson simply hasn't faced as much competition as Ohio State and LSU. All three teams are excellent, and we'll find out over the next two weeks who college football's best team this year truly is, but I think the Buckeyes had the most impressive regular season as a whole.
TNet: Piggybacking on that, what are the biggest differences between the 2016 team that was shut out by Clemson and the 2019 Buckeyes that Tiger fans will see? How much of a stamp has Ryan Day put on the program already?
Hope: First and foremost, this Ohio State team has a substantially better passing offense. The 2016 Buckeyes struggled to throw the ball downfield all season, and their one-dimensional offense proved to be a fatal flaw in that Fiesta Bowl. This year's Buckeyes have a multi-dimensional offense that pairs an excellent running game with an elite quarterback in Justin Fields and a talented, diverse group of receivers, so I'd be stunned if Clemson was able to shut them down the way did three years ago. Much of Ohio State's offensive evolution can be attributed to Ryan Day, who still calls the offensive plays as head coach and does an excellent job of tweaking his scheme to fit the Buckeyes' personnel, while the defensive coaching staff he brought in this year led a tremendous turnaround for a defense that struggled in 2018.
TNet: You covered Clemson with Orange & White/Independent Mail and have now been with the Buckeyes for the last couple seasons. What's your view on the Clemson program from then to now?
Hope: By covering Clemson for the 2015 and 2016 seasons, I had the opportunity to witness the Tigers' breakthrough as a national powerhouse program, and their standing atop the mountain of college football has only gotten stronger since. While the Tigers felt like David against Goliath in their national championship games those years against Alabama, they're not “little ol' Clemson” anymore. No program has been more successful than Dabo Swinney's program over the past half-decade, which means that from the Ohio State fanbase's side of things, Swinney and the Tigers now stand right alongside Saban and the Crimson Tide as an evil empire. Clemson can firmly establish itself as college football's premier program right now if it wins in the playoff again this year, and with the No. 1 recruiting class signed for 2020, I don't expect to see the Tigers' success to come to an end anytime soon.
TNet: What’s the biggest key on offense and the biggest key on defense for the Buckeyes Saturday?
Hope: Offensively, the Buckeyes have to be able to establish a consistent run game led by J.K. Dobbins and their offensive line. It seems as though Justin Fields won't be quite fully healthy, which could make him more vulnerable against Clemson's pass-rush, and the Buckeyes can't rely on him to bail them out repeatedly on third downs against a pass defense as good as the Tigers'. I think the Buckeyes' offensive line could have an advantage in the run game over Clemson's defensive line, though, which is what they will need to stay ahead of the chains and move the ball down the field.
Defensively, Ohio State's secondary will face its biggest test of the year against Trevor Lawrence, Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers. The back end of the Buckeyes' defense has been excellent all year, but they haven't faced a quarterback like Lawrence or receivers as freakish as Higgins and Ross. I can't envision Ohio State shutting them down completely, but the Buckeyes have to limit big plays and make some key downfield pass breakups, which Chase Young and their defensive line can certainly aid if they can put pressure on Lawrence. Ohio State's cornerbacks have played as well as anyone all season, but they have to be prepared for the increased level of competition that's coming on Saturday.
TNet: How do you see the game unfolding and what's your final score prediction?
Hope: This game looks on paper to be just about evenly matched, with no glaring weaknesses for either team on either side of the ball, so I expect this to be a down-to-the-wire, four-quarter game that's decided by one score either way. Truly, I view this as a 50/50 game in which both teams have an equal chance to win, and it's ultimately going to come down to who has the better game plan, executes better and makes less mistakes on Saturday. One big play could be all it takes to swing this game in either team's favor. But as well as Ryan Day and the Buckeyes have handled every challenge that's come into their path this season, it's hard for me to pick against them, and I think this Ohio State team – a substantially better team than the 2016 Ohio State team – is capable of being the one that turns the tables and finally gets a win over Clemson. So I'm going with a final score prediction of Ohio State 31, Clemson 28.