Fiesta Bowl CFP Semifinal – Dec. 28
Clemson and Ohio State meet in Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl in a pairing of undefeated teams for the College Football Playoff semifinals. Both teams are far from home in Glendale but both programs have College Football Playoff Championships in the five years of the existence of the playoff format and this is perhaps the most highly anticipated game of the bowl season as dominant 13-0 programs face off.
Match-up: Clemson Tigers vs. Ohio State Buckeyes
Venue: At State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona
Time/TV: Saturday, December 28, 8:00 PM ET ESPN
Line: Clemson -2, Over/Under 63
Last Meeting: 12/31/2016 Fiesta Bowl CFP Semifinals Clemson (+1) 31, Ohio State 0
Three seasons ago these teams met in this same stadium in the 2/3 matchup of College Football Playoffs. The spread was nearly even and Clemson delivered a blowout win 31-0 with a huge production edge of 470-215. Deshaun Watson and J.T. Barrett had a pair of interceptions each but the Clemson running game had a clear edge while the Tigers were able to hit a few big plays in the air. Clemson would go on to beat Alabama in the championship game for the first of now two titles for Dabo Swinney.
Clemson also beat Ohio State in the 2013-14 Orange Bowl a year before the playoff format and Clemson enters this game on a 29-game winning streak, completing a perfect 15-0 championship season last year and this year again unblemished with only one close call back in late September in Chapel Hill with a one-point escape.
The Tigers didn’t look like a dominant team early in the season as coming off brilliant championship performance last season, quarterback Trevor Lawrence battled interceptions early in the season. The Tigers closed the season on a dominant run with Lawrence combining for 16 touchdowns and no interceptions in the final five games of the season. 1,500-yard rusher Travis Etienne has often been overlooked despite an amazing 8.2 yards per carry average this season as the Tigers scored 605 points this season for more than 46 points per game.
Clemson is the #3 seed however having played through a light ACC schedule and high-quality wins are absent from the schedule with the best results coming over 7-5 Texas A&M, 9-4 Virginia, 8-4 Wake Forest, 7-5 Louisville, and 6-6 North Carolina. The Tigers did technically beat seven bowl teams when you add Charlotte and Boston College to the mix but behind Clemson it was a clear down year for the ACC. The Tigers beat two SEC teams but Texas A&M and South Carolina both had disappointing seasons and like many ACC teams, Clemson also played a FCS foe to pad the numbers.
Swinney is 9-5 S/U and 10-4 ATS in his bowl and playoff games but after starting 1-3 S/U and ATS the Tigers have been on a roll in the postseason under his watch with the only ATS loss in that span being the 2017-18 Sugar Bowl vs. the eventual national champion Alabama. Clemson has actually been an underdog in nine of the past 10 postseason games with the lone exception last season’s 30-3 win over undefeated Notre Dame in the semifinals.
In contrast to Swinney’s amazing resume, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day will be a head coach for the first time in a postseason game. Day filled in for Urban Meyer for three wins early last season and is now 16-0 as a head coach for the Buckeyes for an amazing start to his career. Day has only been with the program since 2017 as an assistant with past experience in the NFL as well as with Temple and Boston College. Despite his success, his first season will ultimately be judged on this game alone with the Buckeyes back into the playoffs after narrowly missing out as Big Ten champions the past two seasons.
Controversially Ohio State was flipped from the #1 seed in the playoff rankings to the #2 seed, passed up by LSU following the respective Big Ten and SEC championship wins. LSU was more impressive vs. a higher rated foe on championship Saturday but Ohio State’s overall resume bested LSU’s in many of the counts that the selection committee values.
On championship Saturday four teams that Ohio State defeated in the regular season were playing in championship games as the Buckeyes wound up with nine wins over bowl teams. Ohio State was penalized for a poor first half vs. Wisconsin in Indianapolis as well as not getting as much credit for beating a highly regarded Wisconsin team twice compared to if they defeated two distinct similarly highly rated teams. Ultimately Ohio State has five wins over teams rated higher in the playoff rankings than Clemson’s best win over #24 Virginia, including four wins vs. the top 14.
Day was not the only new piece for the Buckeyes, led by Georgia transfer Justin Fields at quarterback. Fields left Georgia last season after not getting a great opportunity behind Jake Fromm. In his first season as a starting quarterback he delivered an incredible campaign finishing third in the Heisman voting with an amazing line of 40 touchdowns and one interception while also rushing for nearly 500 yards. J.K. Dobbins eclipsed 1,800 yards rushing and along with star defensive end Chase Young, that trio comprised half of the top six in the Heisman voting. Ohio State outscored foes 633-163 on the season with dominant numbers, though the defense allowed 17 or more points in each of the final four games following seven straight games allowing 14 or fewer points.
Ohio State has not been an underdog in the postseason since winning the initial College Football Playoff championship game 42-20 vs. Oregon in January 2015. The Buckeyes have been the Rose Bowl champion the past two seasons and this is the first playoff trip since the ugly loss in Glendale vs. Clemson.
Ohio State has been an underdog six times since the start of the 2012 season going 6-0 S/U and ATS including winning 62-39 vs. Michigan last season in the only instance getting points since the 2014-15 national championship. Clemson has rarely been in the small favorite role under Swinney going 4-5 S/U and 3-6 ATS as a favorite of 3 or fewer points, though all but one of those games was a regular season contest.
Clemson wound up 10-3 ATS this season including 10-2 ATS in FBS games, going 7-0 ATS in FBS games since October started for an incredible run, as a lot of folks fared well supporting the Tigers even at inflated prices including a 30-point spread in the ACC Championship. Ohio State wound up 9-4 ATS this season but lost ATS in three of the final four games including missing the spread in big games vs. Penn State and in the Big Ten championship after an 8-0 ATS run September to early November, with the Buckeyes also faring extremely well in first half numbers.
The victor of this game will head to New Orleans for the national championship in what could be a very hostile environment depending on the Peach Bowl outcome but either team will be a serious threat for the title as this semifinal figures to live up to the billing and hype as one of the best playoff pairings in the history of the format.