PLAYSTATION FIESTA BOWL STORYLINES
1. Clemson and Ohio State will meet in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff when they square off Dec. 31 in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. Both teams have been selected for the four-team playoff for the second time in the three-year history. The Tigers reached the national championship game before suffering a 45-40 loss to Alabama last season, while the Buckeyes defeated the Crimson Tide and Oregon en route to the 2014 title.
2. Ohio State is the first team to be selected for the College Football Playoff without winning its conference championship. The Buckeyes missed out on the Big Ten title game thanks to a 24-21 midseason loss at Penn State, but they won their last five games of the regular season, including a double-overtime win over sixth-ranked Michigan. The Nittany Lions defeated Wisconsin 38-31 in the Big Ten championship game but finished at No. 5 in the playoff rankings.
3. For all the big-name offensive stars on both sides, the defenses could end up telling the story. Ohio State ranks in the top six nationally in passing defense, total defense and scoring defense, and the Buckeyes have piled up 19 interceptions – the fourth-most in the country – which bodes well against star Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has thrown 15 interceptions, though only two in the past three games. The Tigers boast a well-balanced unit that ranks ninth in total defense, a necessity against the Buckeyes’ powerful ground game.
TV: 7 p.m. ET, ESPN. LINE: Ohio State -3
ABOUT OHIO STATE (11-1, 8-1 Big Ten): The Buckeyes lean on one of the nation’s top running games, averaging 258.3 yards per game on the ground behind the trio of Mike Weber (1,072 yards, 9 TDs), Curtis Samuel (704 yards, 8 TDs) and quarterback J.T. Barrett (847 yards, 9 TDs). Barrett has done a solid imitation of his counterpart Watson, as he has passed for 2,428 yards with 24 touchdowns and just five interceptions. The Buckeyes do a good job of pressuring the quarterback – Tyquan Lewis leads the way with 7 1/2 sacks and 10 tackles for loss – and they will need to make Watson uncomfortable to have success slowing down the Tigers.
ABOUT CLEMSON (12-1, 7-1 ACC): The Tigers are tough up front on both sides of the ball, which they hope will help them slow Ohio State’s ground game and force Barrett to try to beat them with his arm. Despite a strong offensive line, Clemson has been inconsistent in its ability to run the ball, though Wayne Gallman (1,002 yards, 15 TDs) has gotten on track late in the season and Watson could look to run more after staying in the pocket more often during the regular season. Watson has a number of capable targets, but the Buckeyes likely will try to lock down star Mike Williams (84 receptions, 1,171 yards, 10 TDs) and make the lesser-known receivers beat them.
PREDICTION: Ohio State 27, Clemson 24