Both teams feature top-10-ranked rushing offenses and defenses.
Both teams feature top-10-ranked rushing offenses and defenses.

Advanced outlook: Clemson-Ohio State Fiesta Bowl projections

by - Staff Writer -

Clemson carries plenty of confidence going into its Fiesta Bowl matchup with Ohio State on Dec. 28 (8 p.m. ET/ESPN).

History certainly seems to be on its side, having shut this same program out three seasons ago on this stage (31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl) and carrying many of the same playmakers from a dominant 2018-19 CFP run (27.5 average margin of victory over Notre Dame and Alabama).

Advanced metrics largely stick to a single season’s results, however, and an impressive 2019 campaign from the No. 2 Buckeyes have them favored by most measures.

Clemson and Ohio State each have No. 1 rankings defensively -- depending on the metric you use -- and they each feature a top-5-ranked offense.

Efficiency ranks: Offense | Defense | Special teams

CU SP+ ranks (No. 4 overall): 6 | 3 | 103

OSU SP+ ranks (No. 1 overall): 4 | 1 | 18

CU ESPN ranks (No. 2 overall): 5 | 1 | 120

OSU ESPN ranks (No. 1 overall): 2 | 2 | 61

(SP+ is a metric from ESPN's Bill Connelly, formerly of Football Outsiders and SB Nation, that combines ratings for the five factors of efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives and turnovers. ESPN’s Football Power Index-based metric has similar statistical factors weighing together).

These are easily the two most statistically-dominant teams with high marks across the board on offense and defense.

Clemson leads the nation in both passing yards allowed (138.5 per game) and passer rating allowed (92.81), as well as scoring defense (10.6 PPG) and total defense (244.7 YPG).

Ohio State counters with a top-three ranking in each of those categories and No. 1 marks in third-down offense (57 percent), scoring offense (48.7 PPG) and red zone defense (64.3), which Dabo Swinney’s Tigers have top-15 rankings in as well.

One of the more interesting areas to watch will come at the line of scrimmage, with both teams featuring effective pass rushers.

Ohio State leads the nation in sack rate (12.8) and Clemson’s not far behind in third (11.9). On the flip side, the Tigers rank fifth in sacks allowed and No. 4 in sack rate surrendered, while the Buckeyes are 94th in sacks allowed and 100th in sack rate -- 112th when pressed into into passing-down situations*. If Brent Venables can contain the potent Buckeyes attack on early downs, Isaiah Simmons and company could thrive versus the dynamic dual-threat Justin Fields.

(* Passing downs are designated as second down with 8 or more yards to go or third/fourth down with five or more yards to go. All other situations are standard downs.)


Clemson was a 29-point favorite on average over the season and still managed to cover those giant spreads in its last seven Power 5 games -- and 10-of-13 contests overall. Ohio State was only a single-digit favorite in one game but it did fail to cover in three of its final four games. Clemson is currently a 2-point favorite despite being the lower seed.

The Buckeyes have been a darling of ESPN’s SP+ for much of the season and the metric has Ohio State as six points better than Clemson, predicting a 30-24 game, and about three points better than LSU on a neutral field.

A strong proponent of Clemson all season, the fellow Football Outsiders alum FEI likes the Buckeyes that much more with a 5-point spread predicted. Two more ESPN-sponsored projections do like the Tigers, however, with TeamRankings and NumberFire calling for a narrow Clemson win (scores below).

The numbers project a classic showdown in the desert, but, of course, they did also in the Bay Area back in January. Clemson’s mantra of playing Clemson each week -- and mental edge therefore in these type of games -- could make more of a difference than any metric recorded this season, being on the right side of confidence versus overconfidence a key against a talented Ohio State team.

Metrics outlook | Prediction

SP+ projection: 64 percent Ohio State (Buckeyes by 6)

ESPN FPI: 54 percent Ohio State

FEI: 60 percent Ohio State (Buckeyes by 5)

TeamRankings: 33.1-30.5 Clemson

NumberFire: 31.1-30.8 Clemson

Top 25 national rankings

Clemson: First downs defense - 1 (161 allowed), pass efficiency defense - 1 (92.81 rating), passing defense - 1 (138.5 YPG), scoring defense - 1 (10.6 PPG), total defense - 1 (244.7), total offense - 3 (547.7), first downs offense - 3 (349 gained), turnovers gained - 3 (28), passes intercepted - 3 (17), scoring offense - 4 (46.5 PPG), sacks allowed - 5 (1), red zone TD percentage defense - 5 (40 percent), turnover margin - 5 (1.08), fumbles lost 7 (4), rushing defense - 9 (106.2), tackles for loss - 10 (7.8), red zone TD percentage offense - 10 (75), rushing offense - 10 (252.9), passing efficiency - 11 (163.39), defensive TDs - 11 (3), third down defense - 11 (38.1 percent), red zone defense - 12 (72), tackles for loss allowed - 12 (4.54), fumbles recovered - 13 (11), completion percentage - 15 (66.1), third down offense - 14 (47.4), kickoff return defense 16 (17.56), team sacks - 22 (2.85 per), fourth down defense - 20 (38.1), passing offense - 20 (294.8), fewest penalty yards per game - 21 (44).

Ohio State: Third down offense 1 (57 percent), scoring offense 1 (48.7 PPG), first downs offense 1 (369), red zone defense 1 (64.3), total defense 2 (247.6), interceptions thrown 2 (1), pass efficiency defense (93.6), passing defense 2 (148.1 YPG), tackles for loss 2 (9.2), sacks 3 (3.92), red zone TD percentage offense 3 (81.9), scoring defense 3 (12.5), red zone defense touchdown percentage - 4 (39.3), third down defense 4 (28.6), passing efficiency 5 (188), blocked punts 5 (2), rushing offense 5 (272.2), total offense 5 (531), turnovers gained 7 (25), rushing defense 7 (99.5), first downs defense 9 (196), passes intercepted 9 (15), turnover margin 10 (.85), fourth down defense 11 (35), completion percentage 12 (66.9), blocked kicks 13 (3), punt return defense 13 (3.6), fumbles recovered 21 (10), kickoff return defense 22 (18), passing yards per completion 22 (14).

Other key stats

Clemson: Kickoff returns - 39 (22.2), red zone offense - 44 (87.5), punt returns 79 (6.46).

Ohio State: Red zone offense 32 (88.9), passing offense 41 (258.8 YPG), kickoff returns 47 (21.8), punt returns 67 (7.7).

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