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Ohio State vs. Clemson: 3 questions and a prediction for the Fiesta Bowl

Posted: 10:25 PM, Dec 29, 2016
Updated: 2016-12-30 00:25:41-05

Both teams played important games in the Valley one year ago. On Saturday, they’ll take the University of Phoenix Stadium field once again for a chance to compete for a national championship.

No. 3 Ohio State will make its record eighth Fiesta Bowl appearance when it takes on No. 2 Clemson in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl in Glendale. The Buckeyes defeated Notre Dame in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, while the Tigers fell just short against Alabama in last year’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game at UOP Stadium.

Who will advance for a right to play No. 1 Alabama or No. 4 Washington in the Jan. 9 national title game in Tampa, Florida? Here are three questions and a prediction for Ohio State vs. Clemson, which will begin Saturday at 5 p.m. on ESPN.

1. Who wins the Barrett-Watson duel?

A pair of star junior quarterbacks – Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson – will take the field Saturday. In another universe, Watson could have challenged Barrett for the starting job; he said Ohio State was his second choice, as he grew up idolizing Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer.

Both men have racked up impressive numbers in 2016: Watson, a Heisman Trophy finalist, has thrown for 3,914 yards and 37 touchdowns and rushed for 529 yards and six TDs, while Barrett has thrown for 2,248 yards and 24 touchdowns while rushing for 988 yards and nine scores. Which QB will make more big plays and avoid mistakes against the other team’s defensive stars? (More on those guys below.)

2. Whose ground game will get going?

Even with the rushing ability of Barrett and Watson, both teams boast 1,000-yard rushers. The Buckeyes are led on the ground by Mike Weber, who has filled in admirably for NFL Rookie of the Year favorite Ezekiel Elliott, rushing for 1,093 yards (6.1 yards per carry) and nine TDs as a redshirt freshman. Clemson junior tailback Wayne Gallman has 1,002 rushing yards (5.1 yards per rush) and 15 scores.

Both teams have formidable rushing defenses, although the Buckeyes are the more impressive unit, as they allow fewer rushing yards per game and have given up just five rushing touchdowns all season. But which team will be more successful in stopping the run Saturday?

3. Which defensive stars will rise up?

Both teams are loaded with studs on the defensive side of the ball. Up front, Ohio State is led by Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Tyquan Lewis, who has 7.5 sacks on the season, while Clemson senior defensive lineman Carlos Watkins racked up 8.5 sacks this year en route to being named to the All-ACC first team. Tigers senior linebacker Ben Boulware was also an All-ACC first-teamer.

In the secondary, Clemson senior cornerback Cordrea Tankersley was a third-team All-American and Tigers senior safety Jadar Johnson (a first-team All-ACC pick) recorded five interceptions. Ohio State sophomore safety Malik Hooker has six INTs this year; he and Buckeyes sophomore cornerback Marshon Lattimore were both All-Big Ten first-teamers.

Which team’s future NFL draft picks on defense will step up in a big-game situation? The answer to that question will play a major role in determining who moves on to Tampa.

Prediction:

Both teams are outstanding on defense, but Ohio State is better. The Buckeyes are third in the nation in points allowed and yards allowed per game; Clemson is 10th and eighth, respectively. The Tigers tend to rely on the pass more than Ohio State; the Buckeyes are fifth in the nation in passing yards allowed per game.

If defense wins championships, the Buckeyes are certainly poised to make their second championship game appearance in three years – though the nation’s No. 1 defensive team (Alabama) will likely be waiting for them in Tampa.

Ohio State 27, Clemson 16