After everything we’ve been through in this roller-coaster of a college football season, we still ended up with No. 3 Ohio State (6-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (10-1) in the College Football Playoff.

It’s the matchup we were destined for after the Tigers’ thrilling win over the Buckeyes in the CFP last season. This rematch is all Ohio State could’ve hoped for after the shortened season.

Here are my final thoughts (plus a prediction) heading into Friday night, starting with the most important topic, Justin Fields vs. Trevor Lawrence.

 

A different mindset for Justin Fields?

It’s been a bit of an underwhelming season for Ohio State’s star QB, who has thrown 5 interceptions in 6 games after just 3 in 14 games last season. And to make matters worse, they have all come in the Buckeyes’ 2 biggest games — the East-deciding win over Indiana and the Big Ten Championship Game victory over Northwestern. On both occasions, Ohio State won in spite of Fields’ mistakes, rather than because of his greatness (which has essentially been the case in the Buckeyes’ other 17 wins over the last 2 seasons).

It’s surprising that one of the biggest question marks going going into Friday’s showdown is Fields and whether he can play to the level that Ohio State needs him to in order to win this game. How do you explain the way Fields struggled against Indiana and Northwestern, and what’s to say he won’t struggle against Clemson’s No. 26 pass defense?

I’ve got a theory.

Look at this season from Fields’ perspective. Since the Big Ten was playing 3 fewer regular-season games than everyone else, and Ohio State was playing 5 fewer games than Alabama and Clemson, every snap mattered that much more if Fields were going to lead Ohio State to the College Football Playoff and win a Heisman Trophy. There was so much pressure on every play that Fields felt he had to be perfect, to help the Buckeyes and himself make up for lost time.

Look at the Indiana game. Fields hit Garrett Wilson for 65 yards on the first play, then hit him again for a 10-yard TD on the next play. On Ohio State’s third offensive play, Fields took another deep shot, but this time he was way off the mark and picked off by Jamar Johnson. On his other 2 interceptions, Fields literally threw the ball up for grabs as he was being sacked. This wasn’t Fields showing he is less capable of a passer, it was him trying to do too much. And this wasn’t Ohio State trying to beat an undefeated team with a great defense, it was Ohio State trying to destroy Indiana and make a statement.

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Well, none of that matters anymore. Ohio State is in the CFP, and Fields isn’t winning the Heisman. The only objective on Friday is to end up with more points than Clemson. Fields can relax and play his game. His top target, Chris Olave, should be back after missing the Northwestern game. Plus, he has a hot running back in Trey Sermon and a healthy offensive line after some COVID issues near the end of the season.

As long as Fields’ thumb is OK, he could be in store for a big night.

Karma?

Ohio State wasn’t destined to win last year. There a handful of plays that, had they gone Ohio State’s way, it would’ve won. The most obvious is the questionable targeting call that went against Shaun Wade. Leading 16-0, Ohio State appeared to have forced a punt late in the first half after Wade’s sack, but Wade was flagged and ejected.

Then there was Jeff Okudah’s fumble recovery for a TD that was overturned and ruled an incomplete pass. It was a questionable call, at best.

Nothing went right for the Buckeyes. Saying the football gods didn’t want them to win is a lame excuse. But at the same time, Ohio State might be in for some better luck this time around.

The Buckeyes already caught a huge break when Clemson starting safety Nolan Turner was ejected for targeting in the second half of the ACC Championship Game, meaning he will sit the first half against Ohio State. Turner had the game-sealing interception against Ohio State last season on the infamous miscommunication between Fields and Olave. Turner is having an excellent season, too, as he is 12th in the country for safeties in terms of PFF grade.

It’s just another reason that Fields could be in store for a big night — and that maybe, just maybe, Ohio State’s luck is changing.

Clemson’s trash talk

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney made a conscious decision to put the Buckeyes at No. 11 in his final Coaches Poll ballot, knowing full well what kind of message it would send. Swinney also said Ohio State is easier to prepare for, since he only has to watch 6 games of film.

I’ll be honest, I don’t get it. Why give Ohio State any bulletin board material? It’s not like this is some righteous stand that will help set a precedent for the future; I don’t think anyone anticipates another season where some teams are playing 11 games and some are playing 6. Swinney knows what he’s doing, but I don’t see the logic in this.

Stopping Etienne

Here’s where the Buckeyes can’t afford any slip-ups. They mostly held Clemson star RB Travis Etienne in check last year, limiting him to a season-low 36 rushing yards on 10 carries. But Etienne got loose in the pass game for 2 long TDs, a 53-yarder to give Clemson its first lead in the third quarter and then a 34-yard score with 1:49 left to put Clemson in front for good.

Ohio State, with two terrific interior linemen in Haskell Garrett and Tommy Togiai, is allowing just 96.7 rushing yards per game (7th in the country). But Ohio State’s linebackers must make sure Etienne doesn’t bust big gains through the air. He has 2 100-yard receiving games this season, which is one of the big reasons he will probably be the first running back off the board in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Where Ohio State is different from last year

The biggest difference between this year’s Ohio State team and last year’s is no Chase Young. That guy not only helped Ohio State lead the country in sacks with 54, but he changed every play just by commanding double and triple teams. The Buckeyes don’t have that kind of presence this season, and that’s certainly weakened their secondary play.

Jonathan Cooper has played very well, but he’s no Young. Sophomore Zach Harrison, a former 5-star recruit thought to be the next great Ohio State pass rusher, hasn’t taken on that role yet, though he did play a season-high 40 snaps against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game. Ohio State could really use a big game from Harrison.

Where Clemson is different from last year

The Tigers were loaded last year at receiver with Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. Higgins is already playing well in the NFL, and Ross was supposed to be an All-America candidate this season, but he has missed the entire season due to a spinal condition that required surgery. Amari Rodgers, the Tigers’ No. 3 wideout last season, has stepped up into the leading role quite nicely, but Ohio State’s inconsistent secondary could’ve had it much worse.

Who has the advantage?

Clemson has played nearly double the games as Ohio State, and contrary to what Swinney thinks, I believe that is an advantage. The Buckeyes haven’t had the same time to figure out who they are. They’ve won, but they’ve not been the same invincible bunch as 2019. At certain points, Ohio State has had to piece it together, especially in the secondary. Cornerback Shaun Wade needs more reps outside. Marcus Hooker and Josh Proctor need more reps at safety.

Ohio State may have stumbled upon Trey Sermon’s game-breaking ability just in time for the biggest game of its season. Normally, he would have 6 more games to establish himself before the biggest game of the season. It’s just a weird dynamic.

Yeah, Ohio State could be more “fresh,” but I guarantee you the Buckeyes would rather have been playing all those weeks and sharpening that defense before facing Trevor Lawrence.

Prediction

My head says to go with Clemson, given how the Tigers are 38-1 with Lawrence in the lineup and just shellacked No. 4 Notre Dame last time out.

My gut, though, says Ohio State. The Buckeyes have come too far to go out quietly. Maybe I’ve watched Ryan Day’s speech after the B1G title game too many times. Mostly, though, I’m banking on Justin Fields delivering an all-time performance with the entire offense actually healthy and Ohio State’s defense getting just enough stops.

Ohio State 34, Clemson 31

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