Ohio State and Clemson meet again in the College Football Playoff, but is it a rivalry?

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra

The lead-up to the College Football Playoff semifinal rematch between Ohio State and Clemson has not lacked drama.

Dabo Swinney began the public sparring last week with the release of his final ballot for the coaches’ poll. He was the only one of 61 voting head coaches to include the Buckeyes outside his top 10.

The snub from the Tigers’ coach caught players’ attention and contributed to their effort in practices in Columbus over the Christmas week.

“I think he kind of fueled it a little bit,” receiver Garrett Wilson said. “It’s been a lot easier to go out there and put the work in.”

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson accounted for 316 yards and three touchdowns in the Tigers' 31-0 mauling of Ohio State in a 2016 national semifinal in the Fiesta Bowl.

Perhaps partly in response, Buckeyes coach Ryan Day dropped subtle shade of his own on Monday. While praising Brent Venables as one of the best defensive coordinators in college football, he hinted at Clemson’s reputation for stealing signs.

“He seems to always know exactly what the other team is doing in terms of the plays that they’re running each play and seems to call the right defense into that play a lot,” Day said. “Why that is, I don't really know.”

The snipes hint at some simmering tension between the programs, as well as a larger question: Is Ohio State-Clemson now a rivalry?

“Absolutely,” Swinney said.

He had a simple thought process. Though the teams are in separate leagues, have never met in a regular-season game and do not have any scheduled nonconference games, they have continued to meet in the postseason when the college football stakes are the highest.

“If we’re playing Ohio State, it’s a playoff or a BCS bowl back in 2013 in the Orange Bowl,” Swinney said. “Any time we play Ohio State, it’s probably some type of meaning.”

'Blood in the water' during their games

The magnitude of their meetings has been especially felt by the Buckeyes, who have twice been eliminated in the semifinals by Clemson in recent seasons, remaining winless against the Tigers in four meetings, including three in the past decade. No program has been a bigger roadblock for aspiring OSU national champion runs.

“If we continue to win, then we're probably going to run into Clemson or Alabama along the way,” Day said.

This season’s rematch won’t likely be the last postseason's bout. Because both sides have been dominant in conference play, as well as in recruiting cycles, in recent seasons, they are likely to return to the playoff in coming seasons.

The 2016 loss to Clemson remains the only shutout defeat in Urban Meyer's 17-year coaching career.

Clemson has captured six consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championships and each time parlayed them into playoff berths, while the Buckeyes are winners of four straight Big Ten titles.

With a lot on the line, James Skalski, a fifth-year senior linebacker for the Tigers, said there has been “blood in the water” during their games.

“I don’t think it’s a rivalry, I think it’s a semifinal playoff game,” he said. “It’s a chance to go play for a national championship. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing at that point. You want to win, and they do, too. There’s definitely a lot of intensity brought into the game, and that could feel like a rivalry game, but I wouldn’t call it that. It’s a playoff game to go to the big show.”

Fellow Clemson senior Amari Rodgers also hesitated to frame the series as a rivalry, noting it feels different than their games against in-state rival South Carolina.

“I feel like they have more beef with us than with them,” said Rodgers, the team’s leading receiver.

Ohio State led Clemson 16-0 in the second quarter of last season's Fiesta Bowl semifinal, but Travis Etienne's 34-yard touchdown reception with 1:49 remaining capped the Tigers' 29-23 comeback victory.

While the Buckeyes have a similarly long-running series with an archrival with closer geographical proximity in Michigan, the frequency of their meetings with Clemson has bred some of the heat.

“They're a great team, we're a great team,” Wilson said, “and whenever two teams get together that are two high-caliber teams like us, it's going to be a rivalry.”

Some of the highest feelings of animosity, though, run among Ohio State fans who remain disappointed with the recent defeats and the program’s inability to get past the Tigers.

The narrowness of last season’s semifinal loss only added to the frustration.

“Clemson for sure is enemy No. 1 right now,” said Dave Biddle, an editor of Bucknuts.com, which runs a popular fan message board.

Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller (5) writhes in pain after a hard hit forced an interception in the Buckeyes' 40-35 loss to Clemson in the 2014 Orange Bowl.

A certain generation also recalls the 1978 Gator Bowl that led to the unceremonious exit of legendary coach Woody Hayes. Late in the 17-15 loss, he punched Clemson nose guard Charlie Bauman after he intercepted a pass from quarterback Art Schlichter.

Hayes never roamed the sideline again, fired the following day.

For the current players at Ohio State, they know they have scores to settle. When asked to characterize the rivalry, Buckeyes cornerback Shaun Wade acknowledged they are winless in four games against the Tigers.

“We’ve never beat Clemson, so we gotta beat them,” he said, “and that's what we're trying to do.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman