When No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Clemson meet in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night in Glendale, Arizona, it will be the first time in the six-year run of the College Football Playoff that two undefeated Power Five conference champions have met in a semifinal. The only prior meeting of undefeated teams was last year’s Cotton Bowl between Clemson and Notre Dame, and the Tigers will look to add to their 5-2 playoff record in a playoff rematch against the Buckeyes.
This is also a true rematch of the Fiesta Bowl semifinal from the 2016-17 season, which saw Clemson shut out Ohio State 31-0 in the same stadium. The Tigers and Buckeyes have developed a bit of an unexpected rivalry because of this, and Saturday evening’s showdown features a bit more resentment than one would expect in a normal CFP semifinal.
Dabo Swinney has defeated Ohio State twice in the postseason as Clemson’s coach, first in the Orange Bowl during the BCS era and then in the aforementioned Fiesta Bowl. Ryan Day hopes to reverse that early trend set by Urban Meyer when he gets his shot at the Tigers, leading a battle-tested title contender into one of the most anticipated games of the entire postseason. All year there has been a suggestion that the three best teams in the country are LSU, Ohio State and Clemson, and this is the elimination game of that group with a trip to New Orleans for the national championship on the line.
These two teams are carrying the two longest active winning streaks in all of college football — Clemson with 28 straight and Ohio State with 19 straight — and are the only two teams in the nation to rank in the top-10 nationally in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense and total defense. What is going to happen Saturday night when they collide? Let’s take a look.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes have fielded elite teams every year since winning the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship in 2014-15, but regular missteps have prevented them from competing in the postseason with Alabama and Clemson, both teams that Ohio State considers its peers at the top of college football. This might be Day’s first season as Ohio State’s coach, but the upperclassmen on the team carry a hunger for playoff success that has festered in the program since that title win.
Falling short of that ultimate goal has worn on stars like Chase Young, who has no playoff experience as a true junior. Quarterback Justin Fields is entering the biggest game of his career after authoring an incredible regular-season run, and there is no doubting the Buckeyes’ talent on the offensive side of the ball. Competing for a national championship on the game’s biggest stage is something that even an elite program like Ohio State can take time to celebrate amidst the annually high expectations of the Buckeye fan base.
Clemson: Dabo Swinney warmed up the R.O.Y. Bus — standing for “Rest Of Y’all” for those uninitiated to Dabo-isms — after the Tigers’ narrow win at North Carolina and an initial set of College Football Playoff Rankings that had the undefeated Tigers outside of the top four behind the likes of Alabama and Penn State. He’s driven the R.O.Y. Bus through October and November, attracting more attention for his commentary than his team should have been receiving for its dominance.
Trevor Lawrence was one of the best quarterbacks in the country for the last two months of the season, Isaiah Simmons and the defense put the clamps on everyone they faced, and Travis Etienne ho-hummed his way to back-to-back ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors while setting new career conference records for rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns. At 6.46 yards per carry, no team in the country has a more explosive rushing attack than Clemson, and yet, it seems like that’s the third or fourth storyline when discussing the Tigers. There’s a lot to like about the 2019 Clemson team and its pursuit of a third national title in four years, but the dominant storyline has been Clemson telling the world that no one is paying enough attention.
Event: Fiesta Bowl (College Football Playoff semifinal)
Date: Saturday, Dec. 28 | Time: 8 p.m. ET
Location: University of Phoenix Stadium — Glendale, Arizona
TV: ESPN | Live stream: WatchESPN.com