Ohio State once again earned itself a ticket to the desert. And this year, the stakes are going to be a bit higher than the last visit.
The Buckeyes are going back to their unofficial postseason home away from home, returning for their seventh appearance in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl since winning the national title in Arizona nearly 14 years ago. They were just there last season as well, impressively knocking off Notre Dame to give J.T. Barrett his first bowl victory as a starting quarterback -- which the record-setting veteran will be looking to build on now in the College Football Playoff.
Ohio State is also just as familiar with the opponent this time around, having studied Clemson, swapped ideas with the coaching staff and recruited many of the same players over the past few years. The two powerhouse programs also met in the Orange Bowl after the 2013 season, a 40-35 shootout won by the Tigers.
But if that matchup felt like a consolation prize for a pair of teams always eying the national championship, or if Ohio State’s last trip to the Valley of the Sun was a letdown after missing the four-team playoff, that certainly won’t be a problem this time as the semifinal matchup will be one of the most anticipated games of the year.
Most intriguing matchup: Even for a quarterback with the breathtaking ability of Deshaun Watson, there is a weakness in the Clemson junior’s skill set. And it also plays right into the strength of Ohio State’s defense. Only two passers in the country have thrown more interceptions than Watson with his 15 so far this year, and that could be a problem for Clemson as he squares off against one of the nation’s most dynamic, playmaking secondaries. Fueled by the emergence of safety Malik Hooker with his six interceptions and with a potential first-round pick at cornerback in Gareon Conley, the Buckeyes nabbed 19 interceptions during the regular season and will be counting on adding to that total if they’re going to claim a spot in the championship game.
Ohio State player who could have a big game: Given nearly a month for Urban Meyer to cook up a game plan and dream of new ways to get the football in Curtis Samuel’s hands, expect the star H-back to be featured prominently in Ohio State’s power-spread attack. Already one of the most productive weapons in the country with 822 yards receiving and 704 on the ground to go with 15 touchdowns, Samuel figures to be the key for the Buckeyes as they search for an edge against a defense stocked with future NFL players. Of course, Samuel usually is the difference-maker for the Buckeyes because few players have his versatility and ability to consistently create favorable matchups for his team.
Key to victory: As much as Meyer has emphasized a balanced attack and tried to develop the passing game this season, the Buckeyes have still struggled through some lulls in the passing game that must be addressed heading into the College Football Playoff. Barrett has thrown for 152 yards or less five times already this year, including the past two games of the regular season against Michigan State and Michigan. He’s not solely to blame for that because there have been protection issues on the offensive line and growing pains for a young cast of wide receivers. But everybody involved will be under pressure to step up and get the Buckeyes back on track with the extra time to practice and prepare this month.