Fiesta Bowl 2019: Complete Preview for Clemson vs. Ohio State in CFP Semifinal

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistDecember 27, 2019

Trevor Lawrence
Trevor LawrenceStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

For the second time in four seasons, the Clemson Tigers and Ohio State Buckeyes will meet in a College Football Playoff semifinal. This time around, it's the 2019 Fiesta Bowl.

Head coach Dabo Swinney and Clemsonthe reigning national championsboast a 13-0 record after winning the program's fifth straight ACC title. The Tigers are ranked third nationally because of a lower-rated schedule, but they enter the CFP with eight straight wins of 31-plus points.

Ohio State is 13-0 under the leadership of first-year head coach Ryan Day and new quarterback Justin Fields. The Buckeyes rank No. 2 nationally but are actually a slight underdog for the Fiesta Bowl.

The winner will advance to face either LSU or Oklahoma in the national championship.


2019 Fiesta Bowl Information

When: Saturday, Dec. 28 at 8 p.m. ET


Stream: WatchESPN

Odds (Caesars): Clemson -2


What's Up With Justin Fields?

Injuries are a part of the game and will not be used as an excuse. That doesn't make Fields' knee issue any less relevant.

Justin Fields and J.K. Dobbins
Justin Fields and J.K. DobbinsG Fiume/Getty Images

The sophomore initially sprained the MCL in his left knee during a Nov. 23 victory over Penn State, and he aggravated the injury against Michigan. Fields then wore a bulky brace against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game and will be wearing some kind of support against Clemson.

"I definitely thought I would be closer to 100 percent," the quarterback said, per Kevin Harrish of Eleven Warriors. "If I had to give a percentage, I think I'm at 80 or 85 right now. I'm just going to hope and pray I feel better by game day, really."

But even a hobbled Fields racked up a combined 627 yards and seven touchdowns against Michigan and Wisconsin.

No reasonable person will argue against the notion that if Fields were fully healthy, he'd be a more dynamic threat. As long as he's on the field, though, he will beand should bejudged on the result.


Weaknesses to Watch

Both teams merit praise for their offensive efficiency, defensive excellence and all that good stuff. But that's not breaking news. They're in the College Football Playoff for self-evident reasons.

The Fiesta Bowl can be won within weaknesses, either attacking the other team's issues or hiding their own.

For Clemson, the most glaring problem is its special teams.

Though sophomore kicker B.T. Potter has drilled all 74 extra points, he's just 12-of-19 on field goals with an 8-of-14 mark on attempts from 30 yards or beyond. Touchdowns are important, but a missed kick is deflating.

Richard Shiro/Associated Press

Additionally, punter Will Spiers is prone to leaving yardage on his kicks. Giving up any favorable field position can be crushing when an opponent is as threatening as Ohio State.

The Buckeyes, meanwhile, rank 103rd nationally in sacks allowed, and Clemson is 15th in sacks this season. Ohio State's blocking unit must be able to contain a sound Clemson defense that is comfortable bringing extra pressure.

If the Tigers get through, they might create some turnovers.

Only four teams in the nation have lost more fumbles than Ohio State's 13, and Justin Fields is the primary culprit behind those giveaways. If he's hesitant to run because of the knee injury, Clemson will have a few additional shots at knocking the ball loose.

And at every level of football, we've seen how a single turnover can dramatically shift a game.


Key Matchup: Clemson's Passing Game vs. Ohio State's Defense

One of the most visible individual battles will be Clemson's leading wideouts—Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross—against Ohio State corners. Jeffrey Okudah is tremendous in man coverage, and his ability to stick with Higgins and Ross downfield may be pivotal.

The problem is Higgins sometimes does this:


We are not worthy https://t.co/6D8qNvH5kQ

Similarly, Ross can do this:

Max Olson @max_olson

Justyn Ross. Are you kidding me. https://t.co/wWWll1huJ9

No, that's not a sustainable offensive attack.

Those catches are still mid-game daggers to defenses when they do everything correctly and an elite wideout snatches the ball anyway. The Buckeyes need solid games from Okudah and Damon Arnette, and a little bit of sideline luck wouldn't hurt.

Ohio State's weakness on defense is the linebackers, so how Trevor Lawrence plans to attack the middle of the field is intriguing.

His aerial excellence is evident, but the sophomore has turned into a serious running threat. Lawrence has scampered for 407 yards and seven touchdowns with 18 gains of 10-plus yards. That will be notable when Chase Young and Ohio State's disruptive defensive line force him to maneuver in a collapsing pocket.

Young leads the Football Bowl Subdivision with 16.5 sacks, and the Buckeyes have an FBS-high 51 sacks.

Lawrence has the knowledge and physical tools to distribute the ball quickly and evade pressure regularly. Yet the Buckeyes can counter with a superb nickelback in Shaun Wade, who has eight pass breakups and an interception.

Clemson slot receiver Amari Rodgers will regularly deal with Wade. He has just 36 yards on six offensive touches in the last four games but will be a critical piece if Higgins or Ross is limited.

In all likelihood, the Fiesta Bowl winner will slant the game in its favor by winning this matchup.


More Stars to Know

Richard Shiro/Associated Press

Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson: Nobody in the country is a more efficient runner than Etienne, who's averaging a scorching 8.2 yards per carry behind a senior-laden offensive line. He has 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground, adding 29 catches for 298 yards and two more scores.

J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State: A second-team AP All-American alongside Etienne, Dobbins has totaled 2,029 yards from scrimmage and 22 touchdowns. His 18 runs of 20-plus yards trail only Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry.

Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson: The hard-hitting outside linebacker leads the Tigers with 14.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. Simmons is an impressively versatile piece who allows Clemson to disguise its coverages and blitzes.

Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State: K.J. Hill recently set the program's career receptions mark, but Olave is the big-play receiver to watch. Entering the Fiesta Bowl, he's averaging 17.6 yards per catch with team-high totals of 790 yards and 11 scores.


Empty the Notebook

5. Both defenses rank among the top five nationally in defensive red-zone touchdown percentage. While the Buckeyes are fourth at 39.3 percent, Clemson is tied for fifth at 40 percent. But on this one evening in Glendale, Arizona, which defense will do a better job holding its opponent to field goals?

4. Behind Olave and Hill, the Buckeyes have four complementary targets. Binjimen Victor is an important option with 32 receptions and 16.7 yards per catch, while 16 of Austin Mack's 21 grabs have resulted in first downs. Garrett Wilson is a promising freshman who's worked into a bigger role lately, and tight end Jeremy Ruckert can do stuff like this:

FOX College Football @CFBONFOX

🤯 COME ONNNN 🤯 @Jeremy_Ruckert1 makes an unbelievable one-handed catch for the @OhioStateFB touchdown! https://t.co/VYAu1f7mJE

3. In the 2018 recruiting cycle, Lawrence and Fields claimed respective ranks of first and second nationally, per 247Sports. The No. 3 prospect was Clemson defensive end Xavier Thomas, who seemed destined for a breakout year in 2019. However, he's been relatively quiet with 6.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Will that change on the biggest stage?

2. Ohio State has dominated the second quarter this season, boasting a 231-37 scoring advantage in the frame. That's a credit to the coaching staff. But the Buckeyes surely know a slow start can be ruinous opposite Clemson, considering the Tigers hold leads of 170-17 in the first quarter and 197-32 in the second.

1. Clemson has one turnover in its last six games, and it came when backup quarterback Chase Brice threw an interception during a 49-point win over Wake Forest. The Buckeyes rank eighth nationally with 25 takeaways, so which unit will win this battle?


All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Sports Reference and CFBStats.com.

Follow Bleacher Report writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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