Fiesta Bowl Is Battle of Best That College Football Has to Offer

Ohio State defensive line Rashod Berry Chase Young DaVon Hamilton Robert Landers

One team is Atlas. The other is Hercules.

One is Goliath. The other is a Titan.

Or if you are a comic book fan, this is Batman and Superman.

Or if you prefer more recent sports analogies, Muhammad Ali in his prime versus Mike Tyson in his.

Who would you take in this list of historical behemoths of the biggest of the biggest, the strongest of the strongest and the best of the very best?

Of course, those would-be battles are all subjective and debatable.

The College Football Playoff semifinal matchup in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., will not be either, by the time Saturday night concludes and a winner celebrates the conquest of the other.

This is this college football season’s version of them all, with all due respect to what will occur in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta a few hours earlier.
In Ohio State and Clemson, we have two undefeated conference champions who everyone agrees are not only good enough to become national champions, but either could go down as one of the greatest teams in college football history when it is all said and done on the night of Jan. 13 in New Orleans.

The Big Ten champion Buckeyes (13-0) and ACC champ and Tigers (13-0) may be seeded No. 2 and No. 3 in the playoff committee’s eyes, but that is a mirage and certainly irrelevant here. Make no mistake about it, these are THE two best teams in the country, with all due respect to No. 1 LSU, which gave up 38 points to SEC cellar-dweller Vanderbilt and 37 to Ole Miss.

And either would be great enough to win a national title in just about any other season in the history of college football. But this season, they have each other as one massive obstacle staring back at the other.

“There’s really not much else to say that hasn’t been said. These are two great teams,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We are mirror images of each other in many ways.”

It’s been 727 days since Clemson lost a football game – a CFB semifinal game to Alabama. It’s been 434 days since the Buckeyes tasted defeat – that miserable night in West Lafayette when the Purdue Boilermakers steamrolled them right out of the 2018 playoff hunt.

Those two losses may seem like a lifetime ago for both teams.

But it’s not only the fact that these are the nation’s two longest winning streaks – Clemson’s at a school-record 28 games (the eighth-best winning streak in history) and Ohio State at 19 – it’s how these teams have dominated this season.

They have combined to outscore their opponents 1,237-300. Clemson scored 50 or more points six times; the Buckeyes six times. Ohio State led the country in scoring at 48.7 points per game; Clemson led the country in points allowed at 10.6.

The Buckeyes led the country with 28.3 first downs per game; Clemson’s defense led the country, allowing only 12.3

Ohio State had the best third-down offense in the country; Clemson had the best scoring defense, total defense and passing defense in the country.

“It’s the best against the best in a lot of places,” Swinney said. “It is must-watch TV.”

Of course, Clemson critics love to point out the fact that the Atlantic Coast Conference is, well… awful. Maybe they didn’t have the best of one thing – the schedule.

It is true, but it doesn’t matter that the ACC resembles the MAC this season, and by saying this, I am sorry for insulting the MAC. But I digress. Clemson can’t help it if Florida State, Miami, North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Boston College and others are mediocre at best. They just lined up and clobbered everyone in their path, with the exception of North Carolina on Sept. 28. They had to stop a two-point conversion attempt by the Tar Heels to win 21-20.

Other than that, the Tigers were their usual dominant selves, winning by anywhere from 14 to 52 points, including a 62-17 blowout of Virginia in the ACC title game.

The Buckeyes blasted their first 10 opponents, covering the spread in eight of them, before losing three fumbles, enabling Penn State to stay close. That 28-17 win of the Nittany Lions, followed by the 56-27 pounding of rival Michigan set up the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, which shocked them by jumping to a 21-7 halftime lead.

Then Ohio State closed its regular season by scoring 27 points to win 34-21 to become the first team in school history to win every game by at least 10 points. Of the two teams, it can be said they had the best comeback, because they had the only comeback.

“They’re good at everything,” Clemson linebacker James Skalski said. “They got two Heisman powers on both sides of the ball, a great running game, great offensive line, great quarterback, great receivers. There are probably 22 guys on the offense that can all go out there and make plays. They’re very deep, and it’s going to be a big challenge for us. We do not see any weaknesses at all.”

The weaknesses certainly aren’t in the coaching end of it.

Swinney, once an unknown receivers coach just 11 years ago, has two national titles in his pocket and has built a powerhouse.

Ryan Day, on the other hand, doesn’t know how it feels to lose a game as a head coach of a storied program at the age of 40. He is 16-0, the second-best start in Ohio State history behind Urban Meyer’s 24-0.

Then you have the subplot of assistant coaches, who do much of the scheming in preparation and play-calling and adjustments on the night of the game. Both staffs are well-paid and hire only the best of the best. Take Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, for example. He has been the highest-paid assistant coach in the country since he arrived from Oklahoma seven years ago. Offensive coordinator Jeff Scott will become head coach at South Florida after the season. Ohio State defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley will do the same at Boston College.

When you hear the term “brain-trust” in college football, there is plenty of gray matter to go around with these two all-star staffs.

“But in a game like this, I think it is not so much about the calls and the plays, but the players,” Swinney said. “Both teams have great players across the board.”

Such as quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence (28-0 as a starter) and Justin Fields (13-0). Two years ago, they were the No. 1 drop-back and No. 1 dual-threat high school quarterbacks in the country.

“I think Trevor is more of a dual-threat guy than people give him credit for. I don’t think people give him enough credit for his running game,” Fields said. “Of course, he’s a strong arm, great accuracy. I think what people forget about Trevor is his legs. I think he’s kind of a long guy. That’s what I would say about Trevor.”

All Fields did was set an NCAA record in touchdown-to-interception ratio of 40-to-1 in his first season as a starter. Nobody, not even any quarterback in the College Football Hall of Fame, ever did that.

Whether it was by design or an honest slip of the tongue, Fields revealed Tuesday that he was “80 to 85” percent healthy when the subject of his left knee came up. He had sustained a strained MCL against Penn State and then re-aggravated it against Michigan. Then two days later, he revealed that he was told not to talk about it.

He may have been honest on both days or it may all have been pre-planned head games to keep Clemson’s coaches guessing. But his health in this titanic matchup cannot be underplayed.

“I think he’ll do fine,” Clemson safety Tanner Muse said. “You think of student-athletes, we’re kind of superhuman. We’re always banged up. But when you get these two weeks off, we just kind of seem to boom, miraculously feel better. Just time off. Time with your family does wonders. I think he’ll be just fine. I think we’ll see a prime version of Justin Fields, and we have to be ready for him.”

Clemson offensive tackle Jackson Carman, an Ohio native who spurned the Buckeyes, will face All-American defensive end Chase Young. Think the NFL scouts may be watching that one?

“Yep … must-see TV!” Swinney said. “Their DL is special. They look like our guys last year, and not just that they have some superstar-type guys, but they have depth. They’ve got a lot of guys. Listen, they take that number 2 (Young) out, 11 (Tyreke Smith) comes in, he’s pretty good. There’s not a lot of drop-off. That guy is really good, twitchy. And same thing in their deep tackle when they bring 67 (Robert Landers) in there.

“They’re just deep and they’re experienced. They can get pressure on the quarterback. They have been able to get pressure on the quarterback without having to bring pressure. They don’t blitz very much. They probably are the least blitz team we’ve seen all year, but they haven’t had to because of their skill and talent up front. So, it’s must-see TV because we’re pretty good in the offensive line. They get a lot of sacks; we don’t give up many. They get a lot of tackles for loss; we don’t give up many. It’s a great matchup. It’s the way a game like this should be. “
Swinney used the ‘must-watch TV’ line so often this week, I began to wonder if the suits at ESPN were paying him a stipend based on the overnight ratings Saturday night.

And then there are the running backs – Travis Etienne (1,500 yards, 17 touchdowns) and J.K. Dobbins (1,829 yards, 20 touchdowns).

“They have talent on all 11 positions on offense. J.K. [Dobbins], nobody — I mean, nobody stopped him,” said Clemson linebacker Isiah Simmons. “They’re the number-one scoring offense in the nation for a reason. Hopefully we just keep it close in the fourth quarter and give ourselves a chance.”

Yes, give Clemson a chance.

You see, if some Tigers were speaking like Swinney this week, it was no accident.

Get this comment from Lawrence …

“I think just — I mean, they put us at number three. So that’s what people think we are,” he said. “They think we’re the third best team. So, until we prove that, that’s what we are. So just having that opportunity to prove that we’re the best team is really more what I meant.”

Las Vegas may think Clemson is third best, but only in the AFC North. The Tigers are a two-point favorite Saturday and likely would be favored over LSU on Jan. 13. So would Ohio State for that matter, depending on the outcomes and scores of both semifinal games.

There aren’t many weaknesses on either team, but if there is one, aside from Fields’ knee questions, Ohio State’s linebackers aren’t as fast, talented or deep as Clemson’s. That’s just a fact. The Tigers have one of the country’s best in Isiah Simmons, the first Clemson player to ever win the Butkus Award.

“This guy has a skill set,” Ohio State assistant coach Kevin Wilson said. “He’s playing in space and perimeter. He’s playing man-to-man. He’s pressuring. He’s playing in the box, running through the “A” gap and blitzes like an internal linebacker. So, one, he has the skill set to do it. And the next thing, he has the courage and the mindset to do it, because a lot of guys wouldn’t want to do that.”

But these teams both have the mindset that no obstacle is big enough. They are that good. They are that confident.

When a reporter asked Swinney Friday if he had a prediction for the future, he answered, “My prediction is the best is yet to come. That’s what I always say.”

For the winner of this game, I believe he will turn out to be correct. The two best are facing each other Saturday night and the survivor doesn’t have just a national title in its sights.

The survivor of this showdown has history it is sights. The winner, if it goes on to win a national championship in two weeks, would surely join a list that includes 1971 Nebraska, 2001 Miami and 2004 USC as the greatest teams in the sport’s history.

Swinney was asked Friday if this game, given the superlatives that surround each team, felt like a national championship game.

“It is a national championship game,” he said, “because if we don’t win it, we ain’t going to the national championship game.”

After all, one team wins a national title every season. In the old days, in fact, there were often more than one.

However, very few over the last 150 years or so got the chance to do it — and make history along the way.

But one will.

Jeff Snook, a 1982 Ohio State graduate, has written 13 books about college football. His columns can be read at

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