Clemson coach Dabo Swinney dealt Ohio State a hand it played all night in a 49-28 blowout in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl.
You won’t find a “No. 11” in a 52-card deck, but the Buckeyes used that as motivation in a 21-point victory on New Year’s Day.
Ohio State paired the combination of respect (or lack thereof) and revenge from last year’s Fiesta Bowl loss for redemption against the Tigers. Now, the Buckeyes (7-0) advance to the CFP championship game for the first time since the inaugural four-team playoff in 2014. No. 1 Alabama (12-0) will be waiting on Jan. 11 in Miami.
“You have to give Ohio State credit for that,” Swinney said in his postgame news conference. “They were awesome. They absolutely dominated the line of scrimmage. … They were the better team, and they earned it.”
The Buckeyes earned it at the Clemson coach’s expense. Swinney will feel the brunt of that after putting Ohio State at No. 11 in his final Coaches Poll submissionl a move that generated enough pregame heat to melt the Christmas snow in Columbus. The Tigers (10-2) might have gotten away with that if it were Notre Dame, Texas A&M or Cincinnati.
There were other teams critics saw as more deserving than the Buckeyes, who played a six-game Big Ten schedule in a season flipped upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. None of those teams is in Ohio State’s weight class, however, and Swinney should have known better than to give the Buckeyes that much to work with ahead of a national semifinal.
Ohio State had a 16-0 lead in last year’s semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl before coughing it up in a 29-23 loss. That stuck, even when the Big Ten canceled its season on Aug. 11 before later reversing course. The Buckeyes had three games canceled because of COVID-19 — including its rivalry game with Michigan — and its Playoff credentials were questioned every step of the way.
Swinney played right into that narrative, and he didn’t back down from the poll controversy afterward.
“I don’t regret any of that,” Swinney said. “Polls have nothing to do with motivation. Both teams were highly motivated to play. They are a great team. As I said, that had nothing to do with Ohio State. They were good enough to beat us. Good enough to win the whole dang thing.'”
The Buckeyes might be the third wheel in the CFP era with Alabama and Clemson over a seven-year cycle, but they are the only team that can match up talent wise with those two programs on an every-year basis. On Friday, the Tigers were the ones who couldn’t match up.
Quarterback Justin Fields led a 35-point first-half eruption that gave the Buckeyes a commanding three-touchdown lead at the half. He completed 16 of 18 passes for 223 yards in the first half alone. That took on another level after Clemson linebacker James Skalski targeted Fields on an 8-yard scramble with 5:57 left in the first half.
Fields didn’t just play through it: He threw four of his Sugar Bowl-record six touchdown passes after the hit. Fields hit Chris Olave and Jeremy Ruckert for red zone scores in the first half, then dialed deep-shot touchdowns to Olave and Jameson Williams in the second half. He outdueled Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who finished 33 of 48 for 400 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Fields, who has just one loss as a starter, handed Lawrence his second. Let’s put that in perspective, using the only other quarterback to do that: In last year’s CFP championship game, LSU’s Joe Burrow torched Clemson for 463 passing yards, 58 rushing yards and six total touchdowns. Fields finished with 385 passing yards, 42 rushing yards and six TDs.
It was more than just Fields. Trey Sermon finished with 193 rushing yards on the heels of a 331-yard game in the Big Ten championship. Ohio State’s defense forced three straight Clemson punts in the first half, which turned the momentum. The Buckeyes forced two turnovers and kept the pressure on Lawrence in the second half.
It was a complete domination that allowed the Buckeyes to bask in that “11” label. Swinney, who joked earlier in the week that he “could run for governor of Michigan” used the same strategy the Wolverines did in 2018 during the self-proclaimed “Revenge Tour.” The Buckeyes beat Michigan 62-39.
The entire Ohio State program operates on a higher level when dealt the disrespect card. The entire state thrives on that “Ohio vs. the World” mantra. While overdone when it comes to the rest of the Big Ten, which Ohio State won the last four years, it still applies on the national stage.
Jim Tressel used it to lead Ohio State to a national title in a 31-24 victory against No. 1 Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. Meyer wielded it in the first Playoff, in 2014, when the Buckeyes slid into the No. 4 spot before upsetting No. 1 Alabama 42-35. That led to a 42-20 victory against No. 2 Oregon in the CFP championship game.
Friday was the first time Day got to use it, and Fields was his ace.
“I think this performance by not only Justin but this whole team will go down in Ohio State history as a landmark game,” Day said. “We want to go on and win the national championship, but there were a lot of tough days over the six last months.”
The toughest challenge lies ahead. Alabama coach Nick Saban is not going to offer that kind of bulletin-board material. The Crimson Tide have played in four national championship games since that Sugar Bowl loss to the Buckeyes in 2014.
Ohio State is the one program Saban hasn’t beaten in the CFP championship game. Alabama has been waiting for that rematch with the Buckeyes, too, and it is armed with three of the top-five Heisman vote-getters in Najee Harris, Mac Jones and DeVonta Smith.
The Crimson Tide averages 48.2 points per game. The Buckeyes are at 43.4 points per game.
It adds up to what could be the best game of the Playoff era since those two teams met the first time around — one that carries more weight than anything Alabama-Clemson could offer. More than one region of the country is involved this time, and Big Ten-SEC matchups come with just as much heat.
Day said Swinney, who played at Alabama, showed that respect in the post-game handshake.
“Dabo has been nothing but professional to me,” Day said. “He said, ‘Have a great game and go win it all.'”
Maybe No. 11 can be No. 1 after all.