Rob Oller | Ohio State needs to beat Clemson in Sugar Bowl to create a true Big Three

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra

Growing up, the Oller offspring sometimes compared themselves unfavorably to successful others, which prompted the pater familias to remind them there will always be someone smarter, richer and better looking.

OK, so maybe it wasn’t the best use of motivational reverse psychology. Parenting is hard. What can I say?

Anyway, the point is that playing the comparison game is dangerous. But it also is inevitable, which is where Ohio State enters the picture. If the Buckeyes were my kids I would ask, “You are close. Is that good enough? Are you content being Russell Wilson instead of Patrick Mahomes? If so, great. No judgment. If not, what are you going to do about it?”

Ohio State and quarterback Justin Fields have an opportunity to show that the 16-0 lead the Buckeyes built against Clemson in last season's Fiesta Bowl was no fluke.

Is Ohio State content to be third best? The Buckeyes rightfully can boast of being the best program in the Big Ten. The best at this (TBDBITL) or that (TV ratings). But only the hardcore homers — you know who you are — would argue that OSU holds the same tip-of-the-top position as Alabama or Clemson.

And that’s why so much is riding on Friday’s Sugar Bowl. An argument can be made that Clemson is the cream of the college football crop. The Tigers have appeared in the College Football Playoff every year except 2014, when Ohio State won the first CFP national championship. They defeated Alabama to win national titles in 2016 and '18 and lost to the Crimson Tide in 2015. Alabama also has won two titles in five trips.

Regardless of how you slot them, Clemson and Alabama stand alone, with six playoff appearances apiece. Ohio State (four appearances with one title) and Oklahoma (four) take up the next tier.

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Buckeye Nation can squawk about OSU enjoying a longer history of success than Clemson, but just as Gen Y fans shrug at the mention of Anthony Gonzalez — sorry, Gonzo — so college football most honors those who thrive in the moment, at the moment.

That is not to say the Buckeyes lack in popularity. Given its gigantic alumni base, Ohio State may be the most popular — and ridiculed — program in the nation. But based on achievement, Clemson won the spelling bee even if OSU had more family cheering in the audience.

More directly, Ohio State needs to finally beat Clemson to make The Big Three a reality more than just overhyped hope.

Let’s back up a minute: Ohio State is an elite program. Ninety-eight of 100 programs would love to be the Buckeyes. It’s just that Alabama and Clemson are two that would not trade places, or in Clemson’s case at least would not trade results. The Tigers are 4-0 against Ohio State, dating to the 1978 Gator Bowl when Woody Hayes sealed his fate by taking a swing at Tigers defensive player Charlie Bauman. Since then, Clemson has won three national championships to OSU’s two. 

Does that currently make Clemson the better program? It depends how you define better. More prestigious? No. More valuable financially? No. More successful on the field? Have to say yes. The Tigers have won six consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championship games; the Buckeyes have won four straight Big Ten titles.

Head to head, Clemson is 3-0 against OSU since 2013, including two playoff wins, one of which was a 31-0 shellacking in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl that led to Urban Meyer reshaping his staff. 

If Clemson's Dabo Swinney is not the best coach in college football, he is at least runner-up, to Nick Saban at Alabama.

Ohio State fans do not want to hear that, much less believe it, which is why this Sugar Bowl matters so much on a local level. You can’t be the best until you beat the best.

On a national scale, however, it's not so cut and dry. Both Dan Wetzel of and Ivan Maisel, most recently of ESPN, nixed the idea that the Buckeyes’ reputation is on the line against the Tigers.

“I don't think winning or losing makes or breaks the program,” Wetzel said in a text. “Ryan Day is recruiting at a very high level right now, so that speaks well for the future. The Buckeyes are viewed by those that matter (great players) as an elite program. Even a blowout loss shouldn’t impact that too much.”

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Maisel added, “The Buckeyes have played only six games. Just think, in 2014 after six games no one even thought about Ohio State. So Friday night I just want to see a competitive game. This won’t count toward the Buckeyes’ final grade.”

Fair analysis. But like my kids, deep down the Buckeyes know where they stand. This is not about what others think as much as about what OSU needs to prove to itself.

“Not having ever won against this team, there is a chip on our shoulder,” OSU tight end Luke Farrell said. “This would be a huge win, not only because we would then be playing for a national championship, but because of the team we’re up against.”

Clemson is that team. Time to see how the Buckeyes measure up.