Fiesta Bowl pits powerhouses Ohio State, Clemson in semifinal

NCAA Football
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There isn’t much difference to consider when trying to pick between No. 2 Ohio State and third-ranked Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal on Saturday.

The battle of titans at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., might come down to experience on college football’s biggest stage.

Clemson (13-0) is in the CFP for the fifth consecutive year, winning national titles for the 2016 and 2018 seasons. A 31-0 drubbing of the Buckeyes in the 2016 semifinal, also in the Fiesta Bowl, was Ohio State’s last appearance.

The Tigers defeated Alabama 44-16 in last season’s title game and have won 28 games in a row.

“We have been in a lot of big games,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “All of our true juniors and true sophomores have played in big games.”

The Buckeyes (13-0) would argue that they have played more big games this season than either Clemson or top-ranked LSU, which plays No. 4 Oklahoma in the other semifinal in Atlanta on Saturday.

The winners will meet Jan. 13 in New Orleans for the national championship.

Ohio State, just in the past three games, defeated Penn State (No. 10 in the current rankings) and Michigan (No. 14) before beating No. 8 Wisconsin for a second time this season in the Big Ten championship game.

While OSU won those three by an average of “only” 17.7 points, the Buckeyes still lead the nation with a margin of 36.2 points. Clemson is a close second (35.9) after routing Virginia 62-17 in the ACC title game. The Tigers haven’t allowed more than 20 points in any game this season.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to beat the best to go win the national championship, and certainly Clemson is that,” Ohio State first-year coach Ryan Day said. “What matters at the end of the year is who’s won, not right now.”

Ohio State is first nationally in scoring (48.7 points per game), third in scoring defense (12.5) and second in total defense (247.6 yards per game).

“They don’t have a weak link on their team,” Clemson junior linebacker Isaiah Simmons said. “They’re good at all 11 positions. All 22 positions, matter of fact.”

Clemson is fourth in scoring (46.5), first in scoring defense (10.6) and first in total defense (244.7).

The Buckeyes are led by Georgia sophomore transfer quarterback Justin Fields, junior defensive end Chase Young and junior running back J.K. Dobbins. They finished third, fourth and sixth, respectively, in the Heisman Trophy voting behind winning quarterback Joe Burrow, who transferred to LSU from Ohio State after 2018 spring ball.

Fields said Tuesday that his injured knee, which hampered him in the Big Ten championship game, is about “80 to 85 percent” healed.

“My knee is not where I want it to be right now, but I think with treatment every day and just resting it every day, hopefully it will be better by the game,” said Fields, adding that he expects to wear a lighter knee brace as opposed to the bulky offensive lineman’s brace he wore against Wisconsin.

“I’m just going to hope and pray that I feel better by game day,” he said.

Fields is fourth in the country in passing efficiency rating (190.3), throwing for 40 touchdowns against only one interception, while also rushing for 471 yards and 10 scores. Fields threw for at least two touchdown passes in all 13 games this season.

Clemson counters with the All-American Simmons, sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence, junior running back Travis Etienne, junior receiver Tee Higgins and, of course, those championship rings.

Lawrence recovered from some early interception issues — he hasn’t thrown any in the past six games — to rank seventh in the country in passing efficiency (176.5 rating) heading into this heavyweight bout.

“It’s been everything I hoped for, and everything I think this team hoped for,” Lawrence told ESPN about the season. “We’re still on pace to do everything we wanted to do.”

–Field Level Media

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