The Ohio State Buckeyes are trying to win their second national championship in the past three seasons, and the Clemson Tigers are trying to reach the championship game for the second consecutive season.
The teams will meet Saturday in the Fiesta Bowl, with the winner advancing to face either the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Washington Huskies in the championship game on Jan. 9.
A unit-by-unit analysis of which squad has the edge in Saturday’s College Football Playoff matchup:
USA TODAY SportsMatthew O'Haren
Ohio State offense vs. Clemson defense
The Buckeyes’ strength is their rushing attack, starting with dual-threat QB J.T. Barrett and with help from running backs Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel. But Clemson’s physical and versatile defensive front, most notably All-America-caliber linemen Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Carlos Watkins, puts it in better position than most to avoid allowing the big gaps that Ohio State likes to exploit.
The Buckeyes will need Barrett to connect on some shots downfield, where Clemson’s aggressive defense leaves it more susceptible to busts, and for the versatile Samuel to keep the Tigers off-balance.
USA TODAY SportsTommy Gilligan
Clemson offense vs. Ohio State defense
Clemson lives and dies with the arm and feet of Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson, who’s sliced up many secondaries but is also prone to interceptions (15). That’s a bad tendency to have against a fast, ball-hawking Buckeyes defense. Led by All-American safety Malik Hooker and likely first-round cornerback Gareon Conley, Ohio State has notched seven pick-sixes.
The Tigers will be much tougher to stop if running back Wayne Gallman gets going, but the Buckeyes boast a Top 10 rushing defense. Instead, the Tigers may try to pick up chunks of yardage with quick throws to receivers like Artavis Scott and hope it opens up shots downfield for stud Mike Williams.
Edge: Ohio State
USA TODAY SportsLogan Bowles
Ohio State’s secret weapon is punter Cameron Johnston, a Ray Guy Award finalist who ranks fourth nationally in yards per kick (46.2) and pinned 23 of 49 punts inside the 20. Kicker Tyler Durbin is decent but had a game-turning field goal blocked against Penn State and had two misses against Michigan. Ohio State’s Parris Campbell is a Top 20 kick returner.
Clemson’s Greg Huegel is 40-for-49 on field goals for his career, and Ray-Ray McCloud and Artavis Scott are solid return guys. But the Tigers also rank among the worst teams nationally in punting and in the 70s in kick and punt coverage.
Edge: Ohio State
USA TODAY SportsKevin Jairaj
Two of the absolute best in the sport square off in Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. Swinney reminisced this week about visiting Meyer at Utah during the offseason in 2004, while still a Tigers assistant, to learn about his offense. Seven years later, Meyer found himself at Clemson while broadcasting a game for ESPN. Their programs and philosophies are very similar.
Swinney did beat Meyer in their lone meeting, the 2014 Orange Bowl. But not only is Meyer a three-time national champion, he’s assembled an all-star staff that this year includes former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Bucs coach Greg Schiano as co-defensive coordinator.
Edge: Ohio State
USA TODAY SportsJeremy Brevard
Many of Meyer’s best teams saw dramatic growth on offense between the end of the regular season and the bowl game. In fact, he is 10-2 in the postseason. With help from some unexpected receivers, Barrett tempers his critics with a big night, while the Buckeyes’ defense feasts on a couple of Watson turnovers to break open the game.