Rusty or rested? Six-game schedule an issue for Ohio State as it prepares for Clemson
In a normal year, six games would represent the halfway point of the regular season for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes would have played a couple of early-season patsies to develop depth and a marquee nonconference opponent – this year Oregon on the road – to test their mettle. They would have largely found out what worked and what didn’t and girded themselves for the stretch run.
Take the 2014 season, which Ohio State (6-0) want to emulate this year as it prepares for Clemson (10-1) in the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Day in New Orleans. Those Buckeyes had an ugly loss to Virginia Tech in the second week and were just getting their footing after six games.
The huge wins at Penn State and Michigan State as well as against Michigan were all ahead of them. If those Buckeyes had to face Alabama after six games instead of 13, it might have been ugly.
Beating Clemson would be a challenge under any circumstances. The Buckeyes have never beaten the Tigers in four tries, the most wrenching being last year’s 29-23 CFP semifinal loss in the Fiesta Bowl.
Ohio State is a touchdown underdog against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, and the Buckeyes’ lack of games is a factor.
One thing is for sure: Critics of the Buckeyes are using their abbreviated season as a reason Ohio State shouldn’t even be in the playoff.
Last week, Clemson's Dabo Swinney was among several coaches who voiced that opinion.
“If I was on a committee, it would be hard for me to leave out a 10-1 Texas A&M or an 11-win Florida team over a team that’s played six games,” Swinney said on Rich Eisen’s radio show.
Swinney then showed his disdain for Ohio State’s resume by ranking the Buckeyes No. 11 in his final coaches poll ballot.
Criticism about the Buckeyes’ inclusion in the playoff is moot now. The pertinent question is what effect a shortened season will have on their readiness for a major climb in competition.
It was a down year for the Big Ten, particularly in the Buckeyes’ East Division. Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State all had bad years. Ohio State coach Ryan Day isn’t sure how well six games has prepared his team compared to Clemson, which has played 11.
“It's a great question,” Day said during a Zoom news conference Sunday. “I don't know, because it's never really been done before. So what does it really mean? I don't really know. I think at the end of the day, it's who executes better and plays tougher in the end.”
Day prefers to view this season as one long learning opportunity, even without a normal number of games. The character needed to endure the many obstacles to reaching this point can compensate for lack of game experience, he hopes.
“We certainly don't have the game reps, especially for the younger guys, to find out what they can do,” Day said, “and we haven't had our best game yet this year. (We’ve) played some good games, but we haven't played our best game this year, and we're going to have to play our best game again to beat Clemson.”
The problem isn’t just that Ohio State has played only six games. The Buckeyes haven’t played in back-to-back weeks since Oct. 31 and Nov. 7 against Penn State and Rutgers. It’s hard to get into a groove with gaps between games.
Ohio State prides itself on having tough practices, but workouts at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center aren’t the same as game reps. The Buckeyes also have had to scale back their practices because of COVID-19 considerations, especially lately.
The most inexperienced part of Ohio State’s team is its secondary, and against Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game Saturday, the Buckeyes were without safeties Marcus Hooker and Ronnie Hickman for non-COVID reasons.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft. To say he will pose a stern test for Ohio State defensive backs is an understatement.
The flip side of the schedule issue is that an abbreviated season has reduced the wear and tear that’s inevitable on players in a normal season.
That, not surprisingly, is what Swinney played up in his Zoom call Sunday.
“I think the games matter,” he said. “The mental and physical toll of a season – there's nobody out there that would say that somebody who's played 11 games vs. somebody who's played six is better physically or something like that, because it's a long season.
“We're going on Week 21. These guys have had no break. It's been a grind, not just football-wise, but the mental challenge and the personal sacrifice and commitment that everybody's had to make to be able to play and continue to play.”
Rested or rusty, tired or tested? The debate about the significance in the disparity of schedules will end when the teams meet Jan. 1.
“None of that matters in New Orleans,” Swinney said. “What matters is who plays the best in those four quarters.”
Ohio State vs. Clemson
When: 8:45 p.m. Jan. 1
Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)