Bowl season has gotten off to a bit of a slow start, but college football will once again be the focus of the sports world come New Year’s Eve. There, the playoff will kick off -- first when Alabama and Washington meet in Atlanta, followed by Ohio State and Clemson in Arizona.
Because the Crimson Tide are expected to roll over Washington, most of the intrigue in these playoffs lies in Glendale, where both Clemson and Ohio State will look to play their way into a second title game in three seasons.
But while Ohio State is favored in Vegas, get ready for an upset in the desert! That’s right, with the more balanced team, more explosive offense and a better-than-you-think resume, Clemson will get the win. Here are five reasons why.
The Tigers are more battle-tested than anyone realizes
So much of the focus is on the Buckeyes' loaded schedule, which includes wins over Michigan, Wisconsin and Oklahoma. But many don’t realize that the Tigers' resume is just as impressive. Overall, Clemson played more bowl-eligible teams than Ohio State (11, compared to nine) and more teams that finished in the Top 25 (four, compared to three).
So if you’re Dabo Swinney’s club, you’ve got to feel confident that you’ll be ready for whatever Ohio State throws your way. The Tigers have faced every kind of offense from the spread (Louisville and Auburn) to more pro-style (Florida State) and have done so in some of college football’s toughest environments, including Jordan-Hare Stadium and Doak-Campbell. Clemson has seen it all, and that will play to its benefit against the Buckeyes.
The Tigers' defensive strength goes against the Buckeyes' offensive weakness
Clemson defensive back Jadar Johnson made some headlines on Tuesday when he said that J.T. Barrett wasn’t “one of the best quarterbacks we’ve faced this year.” But while the quote caused plenty of controversy, here’s the simple truth: Johnson is right.
The Buckeyes’ pass offense was anemic this year, a combination of losing a couple star receivers (Michael Thomas, Braxton Miller) and Barrett just not having a big, field-stretching arm like Cardale Jones did last season. The numbers back it up; on the season, the Buckeyes finished just 77th nationally in passing offense and were especially awful down the stretch. Barrett threw for just 86 yards in the Buckeyes’ second-to-last game, and a mere 124 against Michigan. Yikes.
That’s a bad sign going up a Clemson pass defense that ranked 19th nationally and had 18 interceptions (tied for eighth-most nationally).
Let’s be honest: The Buckeyes are somewhat lucky to even be here
Obviously, that’s not to take away from anything the Buckeyes did this season, but the proof is in the pudding. We all know that they were lucky to beat Michigan (Jim Harbaugh will take that fourth-down spot to the grave with him), but the Buckeyes struggled a week before as well. They had to hold on for dear life in a 17-16 win over Michigan State -- the same Michigan State club that finished 3-9 and lost to Penn State by 30 a week later.
Does that sound like a juggernaut ready to win a title? Or a team that played over its head all year and is a little lucky to be here? My point exactly. Especially when you consider…
Clemson finished the season red-hot
While the Buckeyes were limping to the finish line (and back-dooring their way into the playoff (when Penn State was more deserving), the Tigers finished with a bluster. A slow start to the season seemed to hit rock bottom with a loss to Pitt. But from there, the Tigers played their best football of the season.
Following that loss to Pitt, Clemson smoked Wake Forest 35-13 (insert your own “are we sure they didn’t have the Demon Deacons playbook?” joke here) and then stomped cross-state rival South Carolina 56-7 in their best performance of the year. And an ACC title game win over Virginia Tech wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated, with the Hokies scoring a late touchdown to make a one-sided game look respectable.
The Tigers enter this game playing some of their best football.
Clemson has the best player in this game
That is DeShaun Watson, the Heisman Trophy runner-up and arguably the most talented quarterback in the sport. And Ohio State hasn’t seen a single player like him all season long.
No, seriously: Who is the best quarterback Ohio State has seen all year? The only guy close is Baker Mayfield, and the Buckeyes got him without a healthy Dede Westbrook. After that, who is it? Trace McSorley? Wilton Speight? Alex Hornibrook? I’d take Watson throwing onlyleft-handed over any of those guys. (OK, maybe that’s a stretch. But not by much.)
Watson has already had a monster year with 37 touchdown passes, and expect to continue on New Year’s Eve. With the best quarterback in the sport and the most impactful player, Clemson will move past Ohio State to play for the national championship.