Getting another chance vs. Clemson is all Ohio State could’ve asked for
The last 5 months of college football have had it all: Postponements, schedule shifts, game cancelations, rule changes and arguing about the College Football Playoff.
This winding, unpredictable road has led Ohio State to exactly where it wanted to be all along — with another shot against Clemson in the CFP.
The third-seeded Buckeyes (6-0) will get a rematch against No. 2 Clemson (10-1) in the Sugar Bowl. In case you forgot — and no Ohio State fan has — the Buckeyes suffered a crushing loss to the Tigers in the CFP semis last season.
It’s kind of funny that after everything the Buckeyes have been through — and it’s been a ride — that this was the best they could’ve hoped for. With how dominant Alabama has been all season in tearing through the best conference in college football, it was unlikely Ohio State could’ve done enough to merit the top seed anyways. In the end, playing only 6 games didn’t hurt the Buckeyes at all. Who cares whether you’re the 2-seed or 3-seed?
This matchup will be especially juicy because of the build up. If you don’t think Dabo Swinney, one of the most outspoken coaches in the sport, will have plenty to say about Ohio State’s thin schedule, then you are going against years of evidence to the contrary. Swinney already said last week on The Rich Eisen Show that “it’s almost like you’ve got to have 120 hours to get a business degree and yet these people over here only need 60 hours to get a business degree.” It wouldn’t at all be surprising to see Swinney take a few more jabs at the Buckeyes in the media sessions leading up to the game. He’ll probably lay the groundwork that if Clemson loses, it’s because Ohio State is fresher — even though the Buckeyes haven’t had their roster intact for more than a month.
There isn’t much Ohio State can say to that — or should say to that. Let Swinney talk all he wants, because when we look back on this game years from now, no one will care how many games Ohio State or Clemson played; all that will matter is who won. That’s certainly how Ohio State feels about last year, after all.
I’d be willing to bet that Shaun Wade has thought plenty about the controversial targeting call for his hit on Trevor Lawrence that changed the course of that game. I’d be willing to bet that Justin Fields and Chris Olave have thought plenty about the miscommunication on the game-ending interception. I’d be willing to bet that Ryan Day has thought plenty about how one of the most dominant teams in Ohio State’s storied history — one with a very good case at being the No. 1 overall seed — didn’t even reach the national championship game because of Clemson.
The central focus of this matchup, of course, will be Fields and Lawrence. They are 2 of the biggest reasons that college football is even happening, as both were big advocates of playing this season in the midst of a pandemic. But for Fields, this is a chance to finally top Lawrence, his fellow Georgia native who he has been chasing for his entire career. Lawrence was the No. 1 recruit in the 2018 class, while Fields was No. 2. Lawrence earned a starting job as freshman and won a national title, while Fields was a backup at Georgia and transferred to Ohio State after the season. Then Lawrence took down Fields in the semifinals last year. In a few months, Lawrence is projected to be the No. 1 pick of the NFL Draft, while Fields could go as high as No. 2. I speculated that Fields would even go as far as play in a spring football season if it meant that he could get a chance to finally beat Lawrence.
If nothing else, it will be fascinating to see these guys square off one last time. These are 2 very unique guys who advocated as hard as anyone for a college football season, even though neither needed it in terms of draft standing. Both were surefire top-5 picks, and you could argue that Fields has even hurt his stock by playing this season. Neither has ever come off as selfish or about anything other than winning. They are everything you could ever want in a college football star. It’s going to be terrific television.
Will the matchup live up to the hype? It’s hard to say. Ohio State has looked like a shell of its 2019 self. It doesn’t have near the same pass rush without Chase Young, nor the same lockdown coverage without Jeff Okudah. Fields has more interceptions (5) than he did all of last season (3) in half the games. The Buckeyes haven’t been at full strength since the beginning of the season. The Buckeyes were without 20 players in the Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern, and it showed.
The good news is that the Big Ten appears to finally have reduced the amount of time players must miss due to COVID, from 21 days to 17. That means the players who missed Saturday’s game (notably Chris Olave and Baron Browning) may be able to return to face Clemson. And before you say the Big Ten is changing the rules for Ohio State again, remember that the league had by far the most strict protocols of any conference, and it is finally updating to align with CDC recommendations.
Ohio State, at full strength, against Clemson, at full strength, is all we could’ve asked for back in August as chaos engulfed the sport. Now we’re on track to get it. There may not be a better way to start 2021.