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College Football Playoff 2016-2017: Previewing the Fiesta Bowl

Dexter Lawrence, Clemson
Every single year, the NFL Draft takes a bunch of young college players looking ahead to the bright lights of the pros, as was the case in a big way for Ohio State and Clemson last spring. The Buckeyes and Tigers watched as their offenses and defenses were gutted by NFL defections. For the Tigers, they watched as star defensive linemen Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd ditched, while Ohio State lost their top rusher (Ezekiel Elliott) and tons of talent at receiver. Yet, just months later, the two teams collide for a spot in the National Championship, able to absorb those losses and have others step up. Can Clemson return back to the game they lost in a close one last season? Or will it be Urban Meyer and Ohio State, eager to defend that 2014 title? This game has all the makings of a thriller, and should only remind us how great college football can be.

Clemson entered the year as my National Title pick for many of the same reasons they are 12-1 and sit here today in the Playoff. Junior quarterback Deshaun Watson has had turnover issues this season, but is still one of the best in the sport. Watson has thrown for 3,914 yards and 37 touchdowns, and is still likely to be a first-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft. Watson not only brings valuable dual threat ability, his experience should be huge for Clemson. He is joined by a wide cast of offensive weapons, including backfield mate Wayne Gallman. Because of Watson's stardom, Gallman doesn't get much attention, but he ran for over 1,000 yards and 15 scores on the year. At receiver, the Tigers possess blazing fast speed with reliable Artavis Scott, and lengthy, jump ball weapons like Mike Williams, who also has caught the eye of a few NFL scouts. Along with dangerous red zone target Jordan Leggett, Clemson has a ton of firepower, but the key will be unleashing it the right way. The group has had moments where they have been unstoppable but other times when they can't seem to find any rhythm. Having the offensive line play well against a great group of Buckeye pass rushers would be huge but Watson must also be on point. He doesn't just have to not throw picks, he has to read the defense and attack the mismatches. If he does that, the Tigers should put up plenty of points in this one.

Despite those heavy losses to the NFL, Clemson's defense was still top-notch in 2016. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has proven he can reload this defense countless times, and he has found other playmakers to replace Lawson, Dodd and a number of defensive backs. Sophomore defensive end Christian Wilkins flashed potential all of last year but cashed out on it this year, with 44 tackles and 12 tackles for loss. Senior defensive tackle Carlos Watkins is far from flashy but causes chaos in the middle and is a great pass rusher for his size, with 8.5 sacks on the year. And then there is true freshman Dexter Lawrence, who may have been Clemson's best overall defender despite his inexperience. Lawrence had 58 tackles and 6.5 sacks and showed excellent athleticism and a nose for the ball. That aggressive defensive line will be fired up and could cause plenty of issues, especially when considering Ohio State's inconsistent O-Line play. Linebacker Ben Boulware is a gritty, physical football player that sets the mantra for this defense. He will be tasked with not only leading the unit but stopping Ohio State's versatile backs. The Tigers are not quite as good at stopping the pass as the run, and its understandable why. The defensive backfield lost a ton this past offseason, and is still recovering. Safety Van Smith had 87 tackles on the year but doesn't do a whole lot in coverage, while veteran Jadar Johnson will be leaned on heavily to stop the Buckeyes' receivers. Venables doesn't get a whole lot of national attention, but he has another great group here.

For all of Clemson's strengths, Ohio State has plenty of their own, many of them similar. They also have an experienced quarterback under center in junior J.T. Barrett. This is going to be a huge game for Barrett and his legacy in Columbus. He has wonderful coming in and replacing Braxton Miller in 2014 but hasn't been the same the last few years. He has had plenty of big games on the year, but the Buckeyes' passing attack just hasn't been great over the past couple weeks. They are facing a defense susceptible to the long pass, so they will try and get Barrett going that way. Joining Barrett are two fantastic running backs, in H-back Curtis Samuel and tailback Mike Weber. Samuel has been compared to another former Meyer star player, Percy Harvin, because of his versatility and speed. The junior is a threat to go deep every time he touches the ball, and Ohio State will be creative with how they get him the ball in this one. Weber is more of a bulldozing back, putting his head down and running people over. He is particular dangerous in short-yardage situations, which Clemson will have to be prepared for. A major key for the Buckeyes will be getting more players involved in that inconsistent aerial attack. Noah Brown has been okay as a No. 1 receiver, but outside of Samuel and Dontre Wilson, nobody really scares you at receiver. The Tigers will be able to key in on that and take advantage, likely stacking the box to force Barrett to beat you with his arm.

While the Buckeyes have had some moments offensively, their defense is their strength. It starts with their defensive line, which like Clemson, has some insane talent. Lengthy Sam Hubbard is not only a help in run support, he can get after the QB, while end Tyquan Lewis has emerged as the top pass rusher, with 7.5 sacks. Joining those two is former OSU star Joey Bosa's younger brother, Nick, who is just a freshman. Much like Dexter Lawrence on the other side, Bosa was wonderful despite his immense youth, and his ferocity should disrupt the Tigers quite a bit. Ohio State is also great on the backend, where they lean heavily on wonderful linebacker Raekwon McMillan and a great defensive backfield. Experienced cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley should be able to hang with Williams and Scott, and safety Malik Hooker has become the superstar of the group. Hooker has broken out thanks to his impressive instincts and closing speed, helping him record six interceptions, with three of them being brought back for touchdowns. He should look to jump some of Watson's throws, which Clemson needs to be prepared for. If Hooker can pick off a pass and get a huge return, it could change the momentum of the game right there.

Ohio State has brought many elements of the "Tressel-Ball" era to the forefront this season. That means more conservative offensive plays, playing the field position and letting the defense take care of things, and it is hard to dispute the results. The Buckeyes might not have as many big plays as Clemson in this game, but they are perfectly fine finding other ways to stick in the game. However, they need Barrett to have a big day. If he looks like his old, 2014 self this team has enough balance and weapons to overpower the Tigers. The same can be said for Watson on the other side; this game could very well come down to which of these quarterbacks has the better day. Other factors, like the pass rush and line play should be key but the QB battle could decide this semifinal.

Clemson has not looked like the unstoppable force they were in 2015 throughout much of '16. Yet, they are in prime position to return to the title game because of their explosive offense, stout defense and experience. Those things will have to be out in full force in this one, and turnovers must be limited. This two teams are so evenly matched, and I expect things to be exciting. But, Ohio State will not have an answer for Watson if he is playing well, and there is enough on the Tigers' offense to overpower the Buckeyes.
Clemson, 34 Ohio State, 30

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