Analysis: Clemson Tigers simply lost to a better college football team in Ohio State
NEW ORLEANS — It’s inevitable Ohio State’s 49-28 win against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl on Friday will in some corners reignite the debate over the Buckeyes’ inclusion in the College Football Playoff after playing just six games during the regular season.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose team had played 11 coming into Friday, fed into that controversy by probing the postseason credentials of a team that faced a lighter schedule than other playoff contenders, stoking that stance by ranking the Buckeyes No. 11 in his penultimate Amway Coaches Poll.
"No, I don’t regret any of that," Swinney said. "The polls have nothing to do with motivating. That had nothing to do with Ohio State. I said they were good enough to beat us. The only thing I regret is obviously I didn’t do a good enough job getting my team ready. But I don’t regret anything about that at all."
Rather than indicating any real advantage from a relatively restful regular season, the result simply revealed OSU as the better team, and if the Sugar Bowl is any indication a worthy challenger to unbeaten Alabama in the national championship game.
Amid questions about the Buckeyes' ability to flip a switch and become the team most expected heading into an abbreviated season, OSU provided a resounding response that more than erases the sour taste of last year's painful Fiesta Bowl loss to the Tigers.
"When you get this far in the season, this many games, anything motivates you," said Ohio State tight end Jeremy Ruckert. "We heard everything he was saying. We definitely used that as motivation. But now we’ve got a chance to move on, and that’s motivation enough."
From Clemson's perspective, the 21-point loss is a failure of significant proportions given how the Tigers had looked since November's loss against Notre Dame and the blowback that will stem from Swinney's comments and ranking.
For Swinney, the first evidence of that fallout came right after the final whistle: Ohio State fans in attendance at the Superdome serenaded Clemson off the field with chants of, "Dabo, Dabo, Dabo."
The inability to beat the Buckeyes and at least advance to the championship game also represents a painful missed opportunity for Clemson, which will now reboot without quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne and several of the key figures behind the program's success in the past three seasons.
"We wanted to end it in Miami," the site of the championship game, "with a victory and ride off in the sunset. But it wasn’t meant to be," Swinney said.
The matchup of two elite quarterback prospects was won by Ohio State junior Justin Fields, who completed 22 of 28 throws for 385 yards and six scores against one interception. He added another 42 rushing yards.
With his right thumb bandaged, Fields put together a brilliant performance against a defense that had allowed only two quarterbacks in the past four seasons to throw for more than 300 yards and multiple touchdowns.
In the game's defining moment, Fields was briefly sidelined by a vicious hit from Clemson senior linebacker James Skalski, who was ejected for targeting, and then returned one play later to toss a touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Olave.
After Lawrence ran for a score on the game's opening drive, Clemson struggled to remain in rhythm against an Ohio State defense that ranked in the bottom half of the Big Ten during the regular season in yards allowed per play. Lawrence finished with 400 passing yards and two touchdowns in just the second loss of his college career, both in New Orleans.
Rather than setting the tone, the early touchdown belied the Tigers' struggles in putting together extended drives to combat the Buckeyes' explosiveness. Four of Clemson's next five drives lasted four or fewer plays while OSU would put together five straight touchdown drives to end the first half, the last three spanning at least nine plays.
The surprisingly disjointed play of Lawrence and the Clemson offense was outweighed by the utter collapse of Clemson's defense and a series of conservative coaching decisions by Swinney that seemed to ignore how OSU had ripped away momentum.
With the score tied at 14 on the opening drive of the second quarter, Swinney opted to punt on 4th-and-2 from Clemson's 43-yard line. With just over three minutes remaining in the half and OSU up 28-14, Clemson opted to punt again in similar circumstances: facing 4th-and-3 from the same spot on the field. The Buckeyes would score another touchdown with 16 seconds left.
In the case of the second punt in particular, Swinney's decision indicates an inability to gauge the flow of a game that was quickly turning into an Ohio State blowout.
Put into a blender by the combination of Fields and running back Trey Sermon, who followed up on his record-setting show against Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game with 193 rushing yards and a touchdown, Clemson's defense has now cratered in each of the program's last two playoff games.
"We could’ve used a few more stops, for sure," Lawrence said. "When we’re punting and they’re scoring for a quarter, it can kind of get out of hand pretty quick. In games like this, you’ve got to play well all the way around and we didn’t do that tonight."
If anything, the Tigers looked worse against OSU than in last year's loss to LSU, when the defense gave up 628 yards and allowed Joe Burrow to throw five touchdowns. The Buckeyes led 35-14 at halftime — the first time Clemson faced a 21-point halftime deficit since the 2012 Orange Bowl against West Virginia — and finished with 639 yards of offense on 8.9 yards per play.
All but one of the Buckeyes' seven touchdown drives spanned at least 75 yards. The Buckeyes averaged 6.3 yards per carry when adjusted for sacks and ran for 265 yards overall, the most Clemson had allowed in a game since 2016. Ohio State would punt on its first possession and then not again until its final drive of the third quarter.
"Defensively, we were just out of rhythm," said Swinney. "Again, five straight touchdowns and we weren’t able to respond like we wanted to offensively. We just got in a hole. And games like this, that’s not the position we want to be in."
Coming on the heels of last season's 42-25 loss to LSU, the defeat punctures the aura of inevitability regarding the latest iteration of the cross-conference rivalry with Alabama and dents the Tigers' standing position as the only program worthy of being compared side-by-side with the Crimson Tide.
Reaching the playoff has become a birthright for Clemson, which after years of underwhelming results broke through in 2015 and has since claimed two national championships, played for two more and earned a place in college football history.
Ohio State did something no team, not even LSU, had done to Clemson during the playoff era: make the Tigers look not only underwhelming but also unprepared for the sport's biggest stage.
"We had great preparation, tremendous focus," Swinney said. "But we didn’t play well. We never could get the momentum turned. We were very inconsistent and didn’t do some of the very basic things you have to do to win games like this."
Follow USA TODAY Sports college reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg