OVERVIEW: This game should be highly entertaining and easily the best matchup on a great day of college football. I have Ohio State and Clemson as even teams, although they are not at all similar. I'm not sure either team has faced an opponent this year that will prepare them for this game. With a month to prepare, both squads will be healthy and ready to go, which should lend itself to an amazing game.
THE COACHING: While Urban Meyer is one of the greatest coaches in the game today, don't discount Dabo Swinney as a special coach in his own right. He beat Meyer head-to-head a few years ago, and went toe-to-toe with Nick Saban last year. I don't really see a big edge on either sideline from a schematic or strategic advantage.
STYLE OF PLAY: To win this game, Ohio State needs to become the Michigan State type of team we've seen the past few years. Clemson has a huge edge in offensive skill players, and it's not really close. Watson is better than Barrett, and Clemson has four wideouts and a tight end that can cause damage. Curtis Samuel is the only player that is as dynamic of a playmaker as Clemson's skill guys. Clemson makes a lot of big plays in the passing game, while Ohio State makes zero plays over ten yards throwing the football. The way Big Ten teams have to play Ohio State, like the past two games against Michigan State and Michigan, is exactly how the Buckeyes need to approach Clemson. In a rare twist, this is a game where Ohio State wants a streetfight, while Clemson wants a track meet. Ohio State does not have the offensive firepower to get into a shootout with this team.
WHAT OHIO STATE NEEDS TO DO OFFENSIVELY: The Ohio State offensive line has struggled in pass protection lately, but that's not what I'm concentrating on in this matchup. This offensive line MUST out-physical the Clemson D-line at the point of attack and knock the Tigers off the football. They can hurt Clemson with the option on the outside, but must continue running Mike Weber right at their defense. I would look to go both inside and out with equal frequency. Barrett can't throw the football well past ten yards, so stick with the short passing game. But once per quarter, they need to take a shot deep to keep the Clemson safetys occupied. If you happen to hit K.J. Hill or Samuel deep all the better, but at least take a few shots. I think first down is the key for both offenses, and Ohio State breaking tendencies and throwing on first should be the ticket especially early in the game. Ohio State needs to just not look to make first downs only, but look to score on every possession, which you definitely can do even in a run-heavy offense. They will need to score 30-35 to win, and this will not be a 17-16 game. Clemson does not tackle well and Ohio State just needs to stay close and wear them out in the fourth quarter. If Clemson jumps out to a 21-3 lead I don't see the comeback of two years ago happening. Stay close. Pound that defense. And beat them in the fourth quarter.
WHAT OHIO STATE NEEDS TO DEFENSIVELY: Deshaun Watson is a GREAT football player, probably the most impactful player in this game. He is going to get his. Ohio State MUST win on first down, and put Watson in second-and-ten, not second-and-three. They have to make him throw in third-and-long, where he has made mistakes this season. The Ohio State defensive tackles have been good this year, and they need to be strong again. If Wayne Gallman rushes for 100 yards, then Ohio State is in deep trouble. Those receivers and Watson are going to get theirs, but Gallman needs to be held to a 17 for 43 yards type of game. Watson can be turnover prone when forced to get out of his comfort zone, and the Ohio State DB's can go Pick-Six on him if he's careless. This Buckeye defense has been the strength of this team all year, and this game will be no different. The Back-Seven needs to at least get a stalemate with the wideouts, while the D-line smothers Gallman.
KEYS TO WATCH: I don't expect Ohio State to have more big plays in this game, but they need a few. A Pick-Six. A blocked punt. A Samuel long run. Maybe put Samuel back for every punt and kickoff? Get him the ball in the open field somehow. Maybe an option pass? Barrett makes no plays over 20 yards throwing it, so they need to find a few somewhere. OHIO STATE MUST CAUSE TURNOVERS AND HAVE NONE OF THEIR OWN. If Clemson turns Barrett over then Ohio State is going to lose the game. They are not dynamic enough offensively to beat Clemson if they lose the turnover battle decisively. I'm not sure Ohio State will win if it's even either.
THE INDIVIDUAL KEY: It has to be J.T. Barrett, who has been up and down all year long. If he's down, there's no path for an Ohio State victory. If Barrett plays well, it's hard to see the Buckeyes losing. That's an over-simplification, but it's how I see this matchup. Barrett can't do Deshaun Watson things, but he has to do the things that have let him lead this team to a lot of wins the past few years. Run for 100 yards. Throw for 200 yards. No turnovers. Lots of third down wins.
THE VEGAS LINE: Ohio State favored by three points seems high to me, but the total of 59 seems right on the money. Picking games against the spread this year in this column has not been anything to brag about, as this is the worst year I've had in a while. The record sits at 9-8 right now. What I'm going to do here is play my first teaser of the year, because these lines are just too sharp right now. I'm going to go with Clemson+9 and Over53 as my play. I'm seeing a game that goes to the wire and is decided on the last play. This game could go to overtime, which would just about guarantee a winning wager.
THE PICK: OHIO STATE 31 Clemson 30.
AN INSTANT CLASSIC.