Ohio State returns to College Football Playoff, will face Clemson

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade holds the Big Ten championship trophy among celebrating teammates after the Buckeyes defeated Northwestern 22-10 on Saturday in Indianapolis.

Ohio State is returning to the College Football Playoff against a familiar opponent.

The No. 3 Buckeyes (6-0) will play No. 2 Clemson (10-1) on Jan. 1 in New Orleans, the CFP selection committee announced Sunday afternoon. 

Ohio State will have no shortage of motivation. Clemson has knocked the Buckeyes out of the CFP twice.

In 2016, the Tigers blanked Ohio State 31-0. Last year’s defeat stung even more. The Buckeyes led 16-0 in the second quarter before losing 29-23 after controversial calls went against them. A last-minute interception in the end zone ended Ohio State’s chances.

"In the offseason, before we went on quarantine, that was a loss that was fresh in our minds," Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said on ESPN after the CFP announcement. "As we went into the quarantine, and then through the preseason, we wanted an opportunity to get back to this situation, to go win the whole thing.

"When guys were fighting for a season, they wanted to go play for a national championship. Certainly, they wanted to win a Big Ten championship. But the No. 1 goal was to win a national championship. The fact we're back here again against Clemson, it's exciting for our guys."

That looked to be in doubt on Saturday when Ohio State trailed Northwestern 10-6 at halftime. But the Buckeyes rallied Trey Sermon’s OSU-record 331 rushing yards to prevail over the No. 14 Wildcats 22-10.

“This team is so tough,” Day said after Saturday’s victory. “They've been through so much, and they just don't flinch. I cannot give this team enough credit. And I'll say this: If we had to play one game against anybody in the country, I'll take the Ohio State Buckeyes.”

With the Big Ten’s late start and cancellations of the Buckeyes’ games against Maryland, Illinois and Michigan, Ohio State played only six games. The Buckeyes’ shortened season was cited by critics as justification to keep Ohio State out of the playoff, and the selection committee did voice concern about that.

On Sunday, CFP selection committee chairman Gary Barta, who is the athletic director at Iowa, said Ohio State's undefeated record and league title including victories over Indiana and Northwestern made the Buckeyes a noncontroversial choice in the room. He said the disparity in games played among contenders was a season-long issue.

"We knew that that was going to be a problem," Barta said, "and we were addressing it along the way. But in the end, there was not dissension in the room about naming Ohio State in that third spot."

Among Power Five conferences, only Alabama was also undefeated. The Southeastern Conference-champion Crimson Tide is the top seed and will play Notre Dame in the other CFP semifinal in Dallas. That game was supposed to be played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., but California COVID-19 restrictions caused the game to be moved to Texas. 

Clemson avenged its only loss of the season when it rolled over Notre Dame 34-10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game on Saturday. The Fighting Irish beat the Tigers 47-40 in double overtime in South Bend on Nov. 7. Clemson was without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence in the first game.

On Saturday, Clemson dominated. After Notre Dame opened the scoring with a field goal, the Tigers scored the next 34 points.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was among coaches who questioned Ohio State's CFP worthiness because of the Buckeyes' shortened season. On Saturday, he said he expected another tough game.

"We all know Ohio State is an incredibly talented team; we look forward to a great matchup," he said on ESPN. "We had a heck of a game with them last year, and I doubt it will be anything different this year. It's going to be a great competitive game, both teams fighting, probably come down to a few plays."

Ohio State has never beaten Clemson, and their games have all been program-changing defeats for the Buckeyes. Their first matchup was in the 1978 Gator Bowl and became infamous when Woody Hayes punched Clemson’s Charlie Bauman after the linebacker made a game-clinching interception. Hayes was fired after the game, ending his legendary 28-year career at Ohio State.

The 2013 Buckeyes lost 40-35 to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. That prompted Ohio State coach Urban Meyer to make defensive coaching changes that became instrumental in Ohio State’s 2014 College Football Playoff championship team.

After the 2016 loss, Meyer vowed to make offensive changes. Days later, he hired Ryan Day as offensive coordinator.`

Day succeeded Meyer last year and Ohio State dominated every opponent on its way to the CFP. The underdog Buckeyes were doing the same to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. But the game turned when cornerback Shaun Wade was ejected for a hit on Lawrence ruled as targeting.

Running back J.K. Dobbins then got hurt after a sizzling start, and Clemson rallied. A Buckeyes touchdown on a scoop-and-score by safety Jordan Fuller was changed to an incompletion on a controversial replay review.

After Clemson went 94 yards in only four plays to take the lead with just under 2 minutes left, Ohio State had a final chance. The Buckeyes drove to the Clemson 23, but a miscommunication between quarterback Justin Fields and receiver Chris Olave resulted in a game-clinching interception.

Olave was one of the players missing from Saturday’s Big Ten title game because of COVID-19. As of now, the Big Ten’s policy of not allowing players to compete for 21 days after a positive test would keep Olave out of this year’s CFP semifinal.

ESPN reported that the league is expected to reduce that requirement to 17 days. It's unknown whether that would allow Olave and the other affected players to play. Among the other key players who missed Saturday were linebacker Baron Browning and punter Drue Chrisman.

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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College Football Playoff

Semifinal: Sugar Bowl, New Orleans

No. 2 Clemson (10-1) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (6-0)

TV: 8 p.m. Jan. 1, ESPN

Semifinal: Rose Bowl, Arlington, Texas

No. 1 Alabama (11-0) vs. No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1)

TV: 4 p.m. Jan. 1, ESPN

Championship game: Miami Gardens, Fla.

TV: 8 p.m. Jan. 11, ESPN