CLEMSON, S.C. — On Sunday night, Clemson’s second Orange Bowl bid in three seasons was met with a healthy dose of skepticism.
When the final Bowl Championship Series pairings were unveiled, the No. 12 Tigers (10-2) had the second-lowest BCS ranking of any BCS qualifier, ahead of only No. 15 Central Florida, and the lowest among at-large qualifiers.
No. 1 Florida State’s berth in the BCS national title game against No. 2 Auburn opened the door for the Orange Bowl to choose Clemson as the Seminoles’ replacement. Orange Bowl officials said on a Sunday night teleconference that the bowl’s relationship with the ACC, which includes a 12-year deal that will begin next season, played a role in the Tigers’ selection.
Clemson qualified ahead of three Top 10 teams in No. 8 Missouri, No. 9 South Carolina and No. 10 Oregon. Missouri and South Carolina were hurt by the BCS’ rules against inviting more than two teams from a single league since the SEC already has Auburn and Alabama. Oregon was passed by for the Sugar Bowl nod in favor of Oklahoma. The Sugar Bowl will begin a long-term relationship with the Big 12 next season.
“It was a hollow 10-win season for Clemson,” ESPN’s Rece Davis said on the network’s BCS selection show. "They were housed by Florida State and handled by South Carolina. It’s a little hollow. But it could fill up a little bit if they can beat Ohio State in this Orange Bowl.”
So how does Clemson do that? How do the Tigers change the conversation from their disappointments against Florida State and South Carolina, as well as their 2012 Orange Bowl debacle against West Virginia, into one about a successful end to 2013?
Here are four ways that Clemson can quiet its skeptics and finish with a smile in South Florida:
Pass, pass, pass the ball
Clemson senior quarterback Tajh Boyd is one of college football’s most dynamic passers. He averages 289.4 yards passing per game, with 29 touchdowns against nine interceptions. He also has 273 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.
Boyd is the ACC’s all-time leader in passing touchdowns and is second in career passing yardage behind former N.C. State quarterback Philip Rivers. Boyd has a pair of dangerous receivers to catch his passes in likely NFL first-round pick Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant.
Watkins has 85 receptions for 1,237 yards and 10 scores, while Bryant added 39 receptions for 800 yards and five scores. As a team, Clemson is 12th nationally in passing offense.
Ohio State, meanwhile, has struggled mightily against the pass. The Buckeyes allow 259 passing yards per game to rank 102nd nationally.
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook carved up Ohio State's secondary on Saturday night, completing 24 of 40 attempts for 304 yards and three touchdowns in the Spartans’ 27-24 Big Ten Conference championship game upset. Cook did all of that even though MSU isn’t a passing team, as the Spartans entered the game averaging 194 passing yards to rank 11th in the 12-team Big Ten.
A week earlier, Michigan’s Devin Gardner had torched the Buckeyes' secondary for 451 yards, although OSU hung on for a 42-41 win.
If Boyd can put pressure on the Buckeyes’ secondary early with big plays, it could open up the Tigers offense for the physical balance that offensive coordinator Chad Morris craves.
Contain the Buckeyes through the air
Ohio State junior quarterback Braxton Miller is one of the most electric and athletic signal-callers in college football, but he struggles to pass the ball consistently. Against Michigan State’s stout defense, Miller completed only eight of 21 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown. No Buckeye receiver has more than 655 yards receiving on the season. Ohio State averages 200.9 yards passing per game, 91st nationally.
Clemson’s pass defense has emerged as one of the nation’s stingiest, allowing 198.6 passing yards per game, 15th-best nationally.
Although sophomore safety Travis Blanks’ season-ending torn ACL has hurt its depth, Clemson still boasts an aggressive secondary, highlighted by junior corner Bashaud Breeland (one of the Tigers’ most improved defenders this season), senior corner Darius Robinson and junior safety Robert Smith.
If the Tigers can blanket the Buckeyes receivers, it could allow linebackers and a stout defensive line to focus more attention on a prolific OSU running game.
Stuff the Buckeyes’ run
While Ohio State struggles in the passing game, the Buckeyes make up for it with a bruising, varied ground game keyed by Miller and tailback Carlos Hyde.
Hyde has 1,408 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns while Miller has 1,033 rushing yards and 10 scores. Michigan State entered Saturday allowing just 64.8 rushing yards per game before Ohio State rumbled for 273 yards. Both Miller and Hyde went over 100 yards rushing after Michigan State had allowed just two 100-yard rushers all season.
Ohio State averages 317.5 yards rushing per game for fourth-best nationally and runs behind a physical, bruising offensive line.
Clemson’s rush defense has been solid, allowing 152.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks 49th nationally. Junior defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is an impressive run-stuffer in the middle of the Tigers line, and linebackers Spencer Shuey (89 tackles) and Stephone Anthony (78 tackles) are constant presences in opponents’ backfields.
But they struggle to contain athletic, running quarterbacks. South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw gained 94 yards with a touchdown on 22 carries, which was a major factor in the Tigers’ 31-17 defeat.
To get its prolific offense on the field, the Tigers must get the Buckeyes offense off it first. That starts by stopping the run.
|Clemson's bowl history under Dabo Swinney|
|2009||Music City||Kentucky||21-13 win|
|2010||Meineke Car Care||South Florida||31-26 loss|
|2011||Orange||West Virginia||70-33 loss|
|Clemson sports information|
Clemson’s last trip to the Orange Bowl turned on an ugly second-quarter moment.
Trailing, 21-17, the Tigers were poised to go ahead of West Virginia with the ball at the Mountaineers’ 1. But tailback Andre Ellington was stripped, and Darwin Cook returned the fumble 99 yards for a crucial, momentum-swinging score. Clemson never recovered in an ugly 70-33 blowout.
“We turned the ball over,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “If we could do something a little different, that’s what it’d be, hold onto the ball a little better.”
This is a far more experienced Clemson team than the one which experienced South Florida two years ago. The 2011 Tigers had 63 freshmen and sophomores among their 85 scholarship players, the highest total among any FBS team that season. Now, those same freshmen and sophomores are seasoned vets who figure to be better prepared for any adversity that crops up.
* Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained directly by the writer.
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