Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State and Clemson will showcase the two best players in college football
The Fiesta Bowl between Clemson and Ohio State will feature two prolific passers and two electric backs. The College Football Playoff semifinal will be billed as a quarterback duel between Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. It will be promoted as a showcase for standout running backs Travis Etienne and J.K. Dobbins.
But the best players in this game will not be in either backfield. At least not before the snap.
Fans will be forced to take their eye off the ball to follow two dazzling defenders —Clemson senior linebacker Isaiah Simmons and Ohio State defensive end Chase Young.
Simmons won the Butkus Award, which is presented annually to the nation’s top linebacker. However, that position label does not sufficiently denote his full job description.
He is the most powerful hybrid engine ever assembled. Simmons is strong and explosive enough to tussle with tackles and rush the passer off the edge. He can plug holes in the box to stuff the run. He can also turn and sprint with receivers in downfield coverage.
His versatility has allowed defensive coordinator Brent Venables to reconfigure his scheme. Clemson has operated more out of a three-man front this season. That helped counter the loss of its entire starting line from last season.
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Venables has been able to mix in myriad blitz packages to mystify offenses. He can walk a safety to the line of scrimmage and swap Simmons into the secondary.
Simmons leads Clemson with 93 total tackles, including 14 for loss. He has notched seven sacks and seven pass deflections. He has logged 645 snaps this season, an average of 49.6 per game.
With Simmons at its heart, Clemson leads the Football Bowl Subdivision with averages of 244.7 yards and 10.6 points allowed per game.
In its release announcing Simmons has its recipient, the Butkus Award selection committee described Simmons as "one of the most versatile athletes to play the linebacker position. He's an exceptional athlete with unique length and makes plays at all three levels, with terrific rush ability, blitz timing, cover skill and tackling range."
Young leads the FBS with 16½ total sacks and 21 total tackles for loss. He compiled those figures despite missing two games while serving a suspension. He also compiled those figures while battling double and triple teams.
The attention he commands opens opportunities for his teammates. Ohio State is ranked second in the FBS in total defense (247.6 yards) and third in scoring defense (12.5 points).
“Having a player like Chase play the way he has clearly changes the game and makes everybody on that defense better because you have to account for him on every play,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said of Young, who is listed at 6-foot-5, 265 pounds.
“He's gifted. He's got good size, good length," Day said. "His technique…is off the charts right now in terms of his hand placement. But it's all the other things to me. It's the leadership. It’s the toughness. It’s his motor. It’s ability to play several plays.
“That's the stuff that pros are made of and great players are made of.”
Young is one of four Heisman Trophy finalist, along with three quarterbacks who will be featured in the College Football Playoff — Fields, LSU’s Joe Burrow and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts.
Young’s company is no surprise. Quarterbacks fill the stat sheets. Quarterbacks load the highlight reels. Quarterbacks attract the most attention from fans and journalists.
Yet, for the Fiesta Bowl, in the meeting rooms, in practices, in the game plan and in offensive coordinators’ nightmares, no one will attract more attention than Young and Simmons.