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Bill Connelly | January 3, 2014

The big 2014 Orange Bowl breakdown

Clemson vs. Ohio State

"College football is better when ___ is good."

We see and hear it said a lot. Fill in your national power (or, perhaps, former power) here: USC, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Michigan, whoever. We take comfort in seeing teams we recognize from our childhood, it seems, and when two of them play in a bowl game, it feels right.

Since college football's balance of power rarely shifts too dramatically, the big bowl games often offer us some nostalgic helmet games. The Alabama-Oklahoma Sugar Bowl, for instance, allows us to flash back to the 1963 Orange Bowl (a 17-0 Oklahoma win over Bear Bryant's Tide) or the 1969 Bluebonnet Bowl (a 24-24 tie and the last game before Bryant adopted the wishbone and ran roughshod over the 1970s).

The Auburn-Florida State national title game reminds us of the 1980s, when these two teams, at varying degrees of power, played one classic after another -- a 27-24 Auburn home win in 1983, a 42-41 Auburn win in Tallahassee in 1984, a 34-6 Florida State win in Auburn in 1987 (Auburn's only loss), a 13-7 Florida State win in the 1989 Sugar Bowl. (There's a lot of Bowden in the bloodlines of both Florida State and Auburn, as well.)

The paths of Orange Bowl participants Ohio State and Clemson, on the other hand, haven't crossed very much. And while patting Howard's Rock ranks high on any list of college football traditions, Clemson isn't necessarily one of those it's-better-when-they're-good teams you hear very often. But in just one game, fate tied the Buckeyes and Tigers together stronger than any other BCS pairing this year.

When the Orange Bowl matchup was announced, college football historians (and amateur historians) immediately and unanimously had the same reflex: "Clemson and Ohio State? The Charlie Bauman game!" Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes was certainly on the downside of his career when he punched Bauman, a Clemson defender, following an interception in the 1978 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. We can debate whether that moment had a larger impact on Ohio State or Clemson over the long haul, but in college football's strange, disjointed, regionalized history, most of us know about this moment. It is a universal one. Those are rare.

And it's going to be pretty fun watching these helmets do battle, even if Urban Meyer doesn't punch Spencer Shuey in homage.

How they got here

Clemson's season to date

Clemson had one of the most invisible good seasons in recent memory.

Ranked eighth in the preseason, the Tigers claimed one of the country's best early-season wins, knocking off a mostly full-strength Georgia squad, 38-35, at home in the season opener. They rose to as high as third in the country before getting absolutely shellacked by No. 5 Florida State at home on October 19.

Now, the Tigers were never the third-best team in the country, and Florida State was never anything worse than second-best -- we would conclude these things rather definitively in the final weeks of the season -- but following the FSU loss, Clemson vanished from the national consciousness. They spent the rest of the regular season in the top 10, but as they wiped the floor with the likes of Virginia (59-10) and Georgia Tech (55-31), our attention remained with those in the hunt for national, or at least conference, titles.

Still, with a win over Georgia (20th in the F/+ rankings), losses only to FSU (No. 1) and South Carolina (No. 14), and few closer-than-it-should-have-been wins (they took a while getting past teams like NC State and Boston College, but all of their wins after Georgia came by at least 10 points), Dabo Swinney's Tigers have put together another solid résumé. Maybe not BCS solid, but solid.

Ohio State's season to date

"Yeah, but who have they playyyed?"

For a good portion of the season, Ohio State was one of the recipients of college football's most overdone, omnipresent putdown. Fresh off of a 12-0 season in which only a postseason ban prevented them from playing for the national title, the Buckeyes were a preseason national favorite while facing down a schedule that seemed to feature nothing more than a couple of minor speed bumps.

When both Northwestern and Michigan turned out to be relative underachievers, the schedule became even worse. But the Buckeyes just kept winning. They forged through an early injury to quarterback Braxton Miller, survived a two-week mini-gauntlet of Wisconsin and Northwestern, held off an Iowa upset bid at home, and cruised through the dregs of the schedule while averaging a 55-16 win. Thanks to losses elsewhere, the Buckeyes were primed to reach the BCS title game despite dreadful computer rankings.

And then they ran into a buzzsaw from East Lansing. Michigan State jumped out ahead of Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, and after the Buckeyes charged back to take a 24-17 lead, the Spartans scored the game's final 17 points to close out a 34-24, conference-winning win. Now only 24-1 under head coach Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes were relegated to the Orange Bowl.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Clemson 10-2 12 15 17 13 87
Ohio State 12-1 7 5 -4 2 35 6
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Clemson Offense 13 20 43 8 48 29 64
tOSU Defense 64 49 37 59 36 68 80
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Clemson Offense 22 38 16 63 63 92 62
tOSU Defense 90 27 50 76 32 33 58
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
tOSU Offense 1 13 1 16 2 3 94
Clemson Defense 9 30 14 14 3 48 10
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
tOSU Offense 1 1 8 2 57 69 49
Clemson Defense 10 6 14 5 5 21 3
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
Clemson Special Teams 56 27 47 78 116 69
tOSU Special Teams 7 23 32 35 15 22

Clemson's biggest advantages

Ohio State cannot defend the pass very well. Clemson can pass. For the season as a whole, Clemson's offense has been very good, but less than elite. The Tigers' No. 17 Off. F/+ ranking places them in company with Stanford (No. 15), Notre Dame (No. 16), Kansas State (No. 18), and Louisville (No. 19) and not the Baylors and the Florida States of the world.

Still, a) their pace assures that they maximize the advantages they find, and b) they should find advantages against Ohio State's pass defense. After all, if Michigan State's Connor Cook can go 24-for-40 for 304 yards on you, and if Northwestern's QBs can go 25-for-31 for 343 ...

As the final weeks of the regular season unfolded, and Ohio State became more and more likely to make the national title game, I made it a point to note that the Buckeyes' defense was probably the single weakest unit (offense or defense, not special teams) of any of the primary title contenders. Lord knows linebacker Ryan Shazier did his best to prop up the front seven -- the Buckeyes rank 37th in Rushing S&P+ despite ranking 90th in Adj. Line Yards, which speaks volumes of the linebacker play -- but his 114.0 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, four forced fumbles, and four pass break-ups couldn't save the pass defense as a whole.

The Buckeyes have a pair of ball-hawking cornerbacks, Bradley Roby and Doran Grant (combined: six interceptions, 23 break-ups), but they can be beaten at times, and safeties C.J. Barnett and Pitt Brown are only solid, not spectacular. If a decent Buckeye pass rush doesn't get to you, you should find open receivers. Especially since Roby's unlikely to play.

Also, have you mentally prepared yourself for the fact that this might be the last time you see Sammy Watkins in a Clemson uniform? He's a junior, he's Draft-eligible, and he bounced back from a shaky sophomore campaign with 85 catches for 1,237 yards (10.8 per target) in 2013. He also has a couple of partners in crime in Martavis Bryant and Adam Humphries (combined: 112 targets, 80 catches, 1,283 yards), who proved more than capable of taking advantage if you gear extra attention toward Watkins. Clemson has solid explosiveness numbers, and Bryant in particular is almost as responsible for that as Watkins is.

The Buckeye offense doesn't do methodical, but Clemson makes you. It took him a couple of years, but Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has generated some rather significant improvement. The D that ranked 59th in Def. F/+ and allowed 70 points to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl in 2011 is a relic; the 2013 Clemson defense was actually stronger than the offense.

The biggest strength of this defense comes up front, where the Tigers stuff the run and invade your backfield. The Tigers suffer occasional glitches, and Ohio State is certainly more than capable of taking advantage of those. But in a game that is expected to light up the scoreboard a bit, you're not expected to pitch a shutout. You just need to make enough stops and big plays of your own.

Ohio State has one of the nation's best big-play offenses, but if you get too aggressive, Clemson will counter-punch and knock you backwards. If the middle of the Clemson defense -- middle linebacker Stephone Anthony and safeties Robert Smith and Jayron Kearse -- can hold its shape, the ultra-aggressive line could do enough damage to put Clemson on top. Ends Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford and tackle Grady Jarrett combined for 38.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks, and Jarrett was actually fourth on the team in tackles. This is an active, fun group.

The Tiger pass rush could get some shots on Braxton Miller. When it comes to sack avoidance, Miller has improved in his three years as Ohio State's quarterback. But it's still a relative weakness. Ohio State's leading receivers, Corey Brown and Devin Smith, have combined for a decent 8.9 yards per target, but part of that average is plumped up by the fact that Miller doesn't always get the ball out of his hands.

Meanwhile, Beasley in particular is one of the nation's best pass-rushers. He's not incredibly well-rounded, but he can pin his ears back with the best of them. If Beasley and company get to Miller on either passing downs or early-down play-action, that could be huge.

Ohio State's biggest advantages

The Buckeye pass rush could get some shots on Tajh Boyd. Let's recycle a bit. When it comes to sack avoidance, [Tajh Boyd] has improved in his three years as [Clemson's] quarterback. But it's still a relative weakness. [Clemson's] leading receivers have combined for a lovely per-target average, but part of that average is plumped up by the fact that [Boyd] doesn't always get the ball out of his hands.

Meanwhile, Ohio State has a strong pass rush, led by ends Noah Spence (who won't play) and Joey Bosa and tackle Michael Bennett. If [Bosa] and company get to [Boyd] on either passing downs or early-down play-action, that could be huge.

Ohio State generates short fields. The Buckeye defense indeed suffered some missteps at times, but between the defense's ability to get to the quarterback, the offense's ability to score points (or at least move the chains a few times -- they are second in First Down Rate, after all), a good kicking game, and a very good return game, Ohio State dominated the field position battle in 2013.

The offenses hold a lot of advantages in this game against a pair of relatively aggressive, volatile defenses, but if Ohio State is starting its drives five or 10 yards ahead of where the Tigers are starting theirs, that could still be a significant advantage.

The Buckeyes might have the best run game in the country. Kind of a key point. Auburn may have finished the season with the hottest run game in the country, but for the season as a whole, nobody matched the consistency of Ohio State's.

Ohio State's ground attack had everything you could want. An option component? Absolutely. Not including sacks, Braxton Miller carries 12.5 times per game for 8.2 yards per carry.

Power? Yep. Carlos Hyde runs angry and softens up a defense, both between the tackles and on the corners. At 235 pounds, he averaged 7.7 yards per carry. That's not fair.

Depth? Certainly. While Hyde was easily the best back of the bunch, backups Jordan Hall, Ezekiel Elliott, and Dontre Wilson combined to rush for 1,024 yards in just 10.7 carries per game, and they kept the engine running just fine during Hyde's early-season suspension.

Mean, talented offensive line? Affirmative. I'm actually not sure the Ohio State line is getting enough credit for the job it has done in 2013. The Buckeyes are in the top 10 of every rushing category listed above -- first in Rushing S&P+, first in Adj. Line Yards, first in Opportunity Rate, second in Stuff Rate, eighth in Power Success Rate -- and no matter how much talent you've got in the backfield (and lord knows Ohio State has plenty), you don't reach that level without an awesome line. The Buckeyes' line plays with fire (hello, Marcus Hall), but it is also incredibly experienced, with four senior starters.

This running game is, as Football Study Hall's Ian Boyd put it in the offseason, "fully weaponized." It has power, speed, and loads of experience.

Clemson's primary hope in stopping the Buckeyes is playing to its own strengths -- randomly making plays in the backfield -- then preventing Ohio State from converting on passing downs. The Tigers might only have to make a few stops to succeed, but there's no guarantee they will.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

Ohio State loses Hyde and four-fifths of its offensive line, and players like Shazier, Miller, Bennett, and Roby are Draft-eligible. We don't know who will leave yet (one figures Shazier will but Miller won't), but while the defense could still improve (or at least hold steady) because of a more experienced front seven, the offense could be shakier because of the line.

Unless Miller goes for 200 rushing and passing yards or the young front seven dominates Clemson, this game won't change expectations much.

For Clemson, meanwhile, Boyd is a senior and Watkins a Draft-eligible junior. The Tigers will be getting a fresh offensive start in 2014, but it does bear mentioning that there are only four other seniors in the projected starting lineup. The defense is deep and loaded with juniors, and the offense will return players like Humphries and Bryant.

It certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility that Clemson could once again play at a top-15 level without its two biggest stars, and if somebody like Bryant comes up big, or the defense holds Ohio State to 24 or fewer points, that could reaffirm that notion.

Summary

F/+ Projection: Ohio State 38, Clemson 32
Win Probability: Ohio State 67%

Clemson is strong on both sides of the ball, but Ohio State gets the edge because of the running game and field position.

We should learn a lot in the early going by simply watching the lines. How is Clemson's defensive line handling Ohio State's epic run blocking? And on the first few Miller passes, how close are pass-rushers like Beasley getting to bringing him down?

Ohio State has an incredible first-quarter offense, so if Clemson is holding up early, that will be a positive sign. Meanwhile, how much time does Boyd have to pass? Is a shaky Clemson run game generating anything? The early answers will likely be the late answers.

The Orange Bowl got itself one of its more intriguing matchups in quite a while, both because of the present tense and the historical ties. Ohio State has been the better team for the season as a whole, but Clemson isn't more than one or two breaks from sending Boyd and company out with an Orange Bowl trophy.

About the Author

Bill-sbn

Bill Connelly grew up a fan of the Miami Dolphins (post-1970s glory), Pittsburgh Pirates (ditto), Portland Trailblazers (ditto again) and Missouri Tigers. That he still enjoys sports at all shows both severe loyalty and a potential personality disorder. He spends his evening playing with excel sheets and watching DVR'd football games from ESPN Classic. See more of his work at Rock M Nation, Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall.

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