Fiesta Bowl 2019: Factors That Will Decide Clemson vs. Ohio State Playoff

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistDecember 22, 2019

Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins (5) runs against Virginia during the first half of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Gerry Broome/Associated Press

The Fiesta Bowl is expected to be the tighter of two College Football Playoff semifinals because of the similar strengths of the Clemson Tigers and Ohio State Buckeyes. 

The ACC and Big Ten champions boast top-10 defenses and have a bounty of talent at every offensive skill position. 

Quarterbacks Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence should be two of the front-runners to capture the 2020 Heisman Trophy, and standout playoff performances could springboard one of them into the favorite role entering the offseason. 

With so many similarities, the Fiesta Bowl could come down to which program takes advantage of its strengths more. 


Factors That Will Decide Fiesta Bowl

Wide Receiver Depth 

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Fields and Lawrence have ample targets to work with when carving apart opposing secondaries. 

Clemson's Tee Higgins is the only 1,000-yard receiver on both rosters, and teammate Justyn Ross owns the most receptions with 55. 

Higgins has 283 yards in the last two games, eight touchdowns in the previous three and recorded a score in each of Clemson's playoff matchups last season. 

Ross owns 207 yards in the previous two contests and had a pair of 140-plus-yard outings in the playoff wins over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Alabama Crimson Tide. 

The duo's postseason experience combined with Lawrence's consistency in the pocket could be too much for Ohio State to handle. The sophomore quarterback has at least three passing scores in the last eight games and has not been intercepted since October 19. 

Ohio State is one of the few schools that can match, or even better, Clemson's wideout production. 

Chris Olave, K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor all have over 30 receptions, 500 receiving yards and six touchdowns. 

Olave has the best numbers of the bunch with 46 catches for 799 yards and 11 scores, and he had five receptions for 94 yards in the Big Ten Championship Game. Hill picked up a pair of end-zone trips versus Wisconsin and enters Arizona with a five-game scoring streak. 

If the top targets are shut down, Fields and Lawrence can call on players further down the depth chart, as 21 players on both rosters have a touchdown catch.

Whichever collection of wideouts shines brightest December 28 could make the difference in what is expected to be a tight affair. 


Rushing Defense 

Richard Shiro/Associated Press

The reason why the aerial attack could be so important is the rushing defenses owned by both Fiesta Bowl participants could thrive.

Ohio State ranks seventh in the FBS with 99.5 yards conceded per game, while Clemson sits ninth with 106.2. 

If the two units contain Travis Etienne and J.K. Dobbins, there will be more reliance on the passing attacks to extend drives and put up points. 

However, holding both primary backs under 100 yards will be a difficult task, as Etienne has seven triple-digit outings in his last eight games and Dobbins has not had fewer than 90 yards since September 21. 

The Buckeyes may be more susceptible to conceding yards, as they allowed Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor to run for 148 yards in Indianapolis. Since the start of October, the Tigers have let two players rack up triple digits on the ground: Louisville's Javian Hawkins and Zonovan Knight of NC State. 

If Clemson is able to extend its strong run by keeping Dobbins from breaking long gains, it may have the advantage in this category. 

If that is the case, it may be enough to create an advantage and hand Dabo Swinney's side a chance to repeat its national championship.


Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.

Statistics obtained from ESPN.com.