Sugar Bowl Preview: Which team breaks the curse?

The 2020 college football season has been a whirlwind thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. From COVID testing protocols and empty stadiums to revolving rosters and cancelled games, this is not like anything we have ever seen before. One thing that does look familiar is Ohio State and Clemson battling it out in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

Both teams look to break an unfavorable trend heading to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl this year. Ohio State is rarely considered an underdog but their opponent is the one team they have never been able to defeat. For nearly 45 years, the Buckeyes have been on a losing streak against Clemson and ever since the creation of the College Football Playoff, the Tigers have been the roadblock to another Ohio State trip to National Championship.

The Tigers will have a hurdle of their own. Just as Ohio State looks to clench their first win over Clemson, the Tigers hope to get their first postseason win in the state of Louisiana. Clemson is 0-4 all-time in the Bayou State dating back to the 1959 Sugar Bowl. In the CFP era, Dabo Swinney is 0-2 in New Orleans after Alabama beat them 24-6 in the 2018 Sugar Bowl and LSU defeated Clemson 42-25 just last year in the National Championship. 

These two streaks continued for both teams in their final game last year and neither have forgotten how it prevented them from another National Championship title. In ironic 2020 fashion, a shot at redemption is up for grabs…. Which team will finally break the curse?

A Shot at Redemption

The continuation of both of these trends works favorably for the Buckeyes. Although it is uncommon for Ohio State to be an underdog, they enter this game with something to prove. Usually, Ohio State thrives with a chip on their shoulder but the inconsistency of 2020 may have finally overwhelmed them. With three games cancelled, the team knew they had to make a big impression in the Big Ten Championship to be considered a playoff contender with only 6 games played but the Buckeyes did not play their best game against Northwestern. 

Justin Fields struggled to get the passing game going without his leading receiver, Chris Olave, who was quarantined due to coronavirus protocols. On top of that, Fields had to battle through a thumb injury and finished with 114 passing yards and two interceptions. It was not until the second half that head coach, Ryan Day, decided to run the ball and unleash Trey Sermon who rushed for 331 yards, breaking Eddie George’s 25-year single-game rushing record.

Although Ohio State was missing players and coaches throughout the season due to pandemic protocols, they have their key starters back and healthy for the Sugar Bowl. That is one benefit to playing a shorter schedule because they aren’t as banged up as Clemson who has battled through injuries through their 11-game season. Dabo Swinney has been very vocal about his thoughts on Ohio State’s shortened schedule ranking them 11th in his AP Coach’s Poll as the other 60 coaches on the panel ranked the Buckeyes within the top six. “I just don’t think it’s right,” Coach Swinney said, “that three teams have to play 13 games to be the champion, and one team has to play eight.” 

The doubtful comments are added fuel to Ohio State who has engraved the 29-23 Fiesta Bowl score in their brains and even hung up the score in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center as a constant reminder. “We know you don’t want to see us here, and we know you don’t give us a chance. That’s fine,” said Olave in the Sugar Bowl trailer video released by Ohio State. Olave took last year’s Fiesta Bowl defeat exceptionally hard after misreading the game-ending play that led to an interception and semi-playoff win for Clemson. “It was tough, especially for me. I care so much about this team and this university,” he said at the start of this season, “I don’t think I’ve gotten over it still and I still got that chip on my shoulder and want to show what I can do.” Olave is responsible for 30.3 percent of the team’s receptions, 34.7 percent of receiving yards and 33.3 percent of receiving touchdowns through the five games he has played this season. Quarterback, Justin Fields, knows Olave’s return will massively impact the entire offense and says that the two of them “have a great chemistry on the field, so just having him back out there will definitely improve our offense a lot”.

Is this a Rivalry?

During this week’s media days, the Buckeyes shared that being seeded to play Clemson again in the semi-final playoff makes the journey more meaningful considering the unprecedented adversity they endured this year. Head Coach, Ryan Day, says that they “asked for this opportunity” while their team, staff and families fought for the Big Ten season to return. 

Tight end Luke Farrell says that they have been “talking about it all year.” Fields said that their whole offseason was dedicated to this game so “just getting a chance to play those guys again and getting this opportunity” fires them up. Center, Josh Meyer, added “this is exactly where we wanted to be.” Offensive lineman Wyatt Davis commented on the mindset entering this game saying that they are “going into this game not respected at all.” After Michigan cancelled their most significant game of the regular season, wide receiver, Garrett Wilson said that they have more than one rival after the build up over the years led them to view Clemson as a rivalry.

Clemson, on the other hand, shared that the feeling is not mutual. “It doesn’t feel like a South Carolina rivalry or any other game we see as a rivalry,” Clemson wide receiver, Amari Rodgers, said earlier this week. “I feel like they have more beef with us than we have with them. That’s on them. I don’t really see it as a rivalry to be honest.” The bulletin board material has certainly stacked up over the year for this match-up but Clemson offensive coordinator, Tony Elliott, says that they have “adopted the mantra ‘embrace the target. We were no longer going to be little old Clemson that would sneak up on people, that whenever we stepped on the field, we were going to get everybody’s best.” As confident as Clemson is, another challenge came when Elliott did not make the trip to New Orleans with the team on Wednesday after testing positive for COVID-19. As confident as Clemson is, they will have to rely on their preparation and execute without their offensive coordinator Friday night.

Clemson’s Offense vs. Ohio State’s Defense

Fortunately for Clemson’s offense, quarterback, Trevor Lawrence is back at the helm along with star running back, Travis Etienne. Last year in the Fiesta Bowl, the duo got the better of the Ohio State defense. Etienne had 98 yards through the air and Buckeye fans are still scarred by Lawrence’s 67-yard touchdown that pivoted the game in Clemson’s favor. The Ohio State defense knows that the dual threat needs to be stopped both on the ground and though the air. Although Ohio State defensive coordinator, Kerry Coombs, was not on staff last year, he knows the explosive power of the Clemson offense needs to be controlled early on. “I don’t think anybody stops them. I think you want to try to slow them down. You want to try to contain them,” Coombs said earlier this week. “You want to try to eliminate those big plays. They do it to everybody. Their explosive tape is the longest tape you’ve ever seen.”

Ohio State’s secondary will really need to step up to stop Clemson’s passing attack but the defensive backfield has been questionable this season after losing cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette to the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Cornerback, Shaun Wade, had the option to declare for the draft as well but opted to return to Ohio State for the 2020 season not once, but twice after the Big Ten season was reinstated. Being ejected for the targeting call on Trevor Lawrence last year in the Fiesta Bowl was a key factor in his decision. “I can’t go out like that on that last targeting play,” Wade said. “I’ve gotta come back and do great things for the Buckeye Nation and just for my teammates.”

Ohio State’s Offense vs. Clemson’s Defense

The irony of this rematch persists as Clemson will be out a defensive back this year for a targeting call as well. Clemson safey, Nolan Turner, was ejected in the second half of the ACC championship game for a targeting call on Notre Dame tight end, Michael Mayer, and will miss the first half of the Sugar Bowl. This should give Justin Fields a little bit of a breather considering how Turner intercepted Fields’s pass to Olave with 37 seconds remaining in the semi-final playoff last year.

The biggest question remaining is the status of Justin Field’s thumb which had a brace on it during practice Wednesday. With the return of leading receiver, Chris Olave, Fields needs to improve the passing game from his performance in the Big Ten Championship. The concern is how healthy the duo is. There’s no doubt of Field’s capabilities after maintaining a 72.6% completion rating even with five interceptions this season but will the thumb impact his passing? Additionally, Olave will need to pick up right where he left off but the coronavirus affects each individual differently and Olave has not caught a pass from Fields in a game for nearly a month. ESPN’s Maria Taylor reports that Ryan Day says that Olave “wasn’t able to practice fully. They took him to 20 percent on Sunday when he first came back to practice, got him to 50 percent and then 70 percent of his reps.” 

On the upside, running back, Master Teague, was also back at practice after leaving the Big Ten Championship with an injury. Ohio State will need to lean on the rushing attack which will be tested by an elite Clemson defense that is only allowing 99.8 rushing yards per game. Ryan Day now knows he can rely on transfer running back, Trey Sermon, who is fresh off of a record breaking game in the Big Ten Championship. Between Teague and Sermon, the two are averaging 276 rushing yards a game and six yards per carry.

This year’s Sugar Bowl is loaded with irony and emotion. Either way the score goes, a curse will be broken. The stakes could not be higher as a shot at redemption and the opportunity to break a curse are on the line for both Clemson and Ohio State.