Clemson coach Dabo Swinney grew up an Alabama fan, when crowning a champion in college football was all about polls and bowls and the best teams often never got a chance to settle it on the field.
“It’d be pretty cool to go back in time and take some of those teams, get the top four, and kind of do the playoff,’’ Swinney said Friday during the final Fiesta Bowl news conference with Ohio State coach Ryan Day. “And that’s what we have. We have a really cool setup in college football.’’
With the College Football Playoff, national champions are now undisputed. More often than not the title game has produced intrigue and thrills. What the playoff has lacked in its first five years is drama on semifinal day. Only two of the 10 semifinals have been one-score games. Average margin: 21 points.
The Fiesta Bowl has a chance to buck the trend. No. 2 Ohio State (13-0) faces Swinney’s third-seeded, defending national champion Tigers (13-0) on Saturday night in a rare CFP semifinal that feels a like it could be a championship game.
Clemson has won 28 straight games, the nation’s longest current streak. The Tigers are No. 1 in the nation in points allowed and No. 4 in points scored. Ohio State has won 19 straight games, second only to Clemson.
The Buckeyes are No. 1 in the nation in scoring and No. 3 in points allowed. The winner advances to the national title game on Jan. 13 in New Orleans to face either No. 1 LSU or No. 4 Oklahoma.
“When you look at the guys on both sides of the ball on both teams, you’ve got a lot of NFL players who will be playing for a long time,’’ Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “It will be fun to see those guys playing against each other and competing. But you talk about a collection of power, speed, strength, you kind of look on both sides. It’s there.
“Clemson, they’re strong, they’re powerful, they’re tough. They’re fast. They have speed. We have speed. They have a really good quarterback. We have a really good quarterback. They have a really good running back; we have a really good running back. It goes back and forth. It will be fun to watch.’’
Clemson is making its fifth straight appearance as Atlantic Coast Conference champion. The Tigers have played in three CFP championship games and won two of the last three titles. They have nudged Alabama to the side and now stand with the Crimson Tide as college football’s gold standard.
Ohio State has been just below that tier of two. The Buckeyes won the first College Football Playoff in 2014, making a run from the fourth seed, but have made only one appearance since.
It did not go well. Clemson beat Ohio State 31-0 in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, maybe the low point in what has been one of the great runs in the history of the storied program. In the last nine years under coach Urban Meyer and Day, the Buckeyes are 96-9 with four Big Ten titles.
“I know that we’re always in the conversation year in and year out, and have been since [the playoff] started,’’ Day said. “Some of the things that have happened in the past have nothing to do with this team, with this coaching staff.’’
Day’s first season as Meyer’s replacement has unleashed a different kind of Ohio State offense, featuring a different kind of Ohio State quarterback.
Quarterback Justin Fields arrived as a transfer from Georgia with all the best talents of recent Ohio State quarterbacks rolled into one 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound package. Fields, a former five-star recruit, can sling it like Dwayne Haskins and run it like J.T. Barrett — except he might be better at both. Fields has 40 touchdown passes, 10 touchdown runs, and has thrown just one interception.
“Big arm. Able to hit his holes. Sit it in the pocket. Taking whatever needs to be done,’’ Clemson safety Tanner Muse said. “He’s a very strong guy. And then his legs. I think his legs are what make him an elite player.’’
On the other side, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, a Georgia native like Fields, already has a national championship on his résumé. Last year, he became the first freshman quarterback since 1985 to lead his team to a title.
“Unbelievable player,’’ Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland said. “You can’t say enough good things about him. You guys see him sitting back there and making throws all over the field. He’s also able to extend the play, when he gets out of the pocket and finds some open guys.’’
For as good as the Buckeyes and Tigers have been this season, both have tried to position themselves as disrespected underdogs.
The Buckeyes are quick to point out they weren’t picked to win the Big Ten and they will come into the game with the better seed but about a 2-point underdog.
Swinney has complained all year that Clemson was not getting the usual respect granted to a defending national champion. He made sure to point out to his team that it was the first since 1966 to start to the season No. 1 in the AP poll, win all of its games, and finish No. 3.
Nobody is really buying any of it. For the first time in the College Football Playoff a semifinal features a matchup of superpowers.
“It is a national championship game,’’ Swinney said, ‘‘because if we don’t win it, we ain’t going to the national championship game.’’
In the other semifinal playoff game, two transfer quarterbacks who left an inedible mark on their second programs will meet in the Peach Bowl.
Joe Burrow needed a year under his belt, along with a coaching change and a new wide-open offense, to really find his way at LSU.
Jalen Hurts didn’t have even that long to adjust, which makes his lone season at Oklahoma even more remarkable.
The overall matchup looks a bit one-sided — top-ranked LSU (13-0) is a two-touchdown favorite over the No. 4 Sooners (12-1) — but the quarterback duel is downright tantalizing.
Burrow, the runaway winner of the Heisman Trophy, has completed nearly 78 percent of his passes for 4,715 yards, with a staggering 48 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
“How can you not respect what Joe’s done?’’ Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “He’s had a fabulous year. He’s going to be the best quarterback we’ve faced.’’
Just a kid from southeast Ohio
Joe Burrow's Heisman Trophy speech has inspired people across the country and more than $200,000 has been raised for the Athens County Food Pantry.
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) December 16, 2019
Ditto for LSU.
Hurts, the Heisman runner-up, has dazzled with both his right arm and his legs.
He’s completed just under 72 percent of his throws for 3,634 yards, 32 touchdowns, and seven interceptions — and leads his team in rushing with 1,255 yards and 18 TDs.
“He’s the key to the game,’’ LSU coach Ed Orgeron said.
Both star quarterbacks took circuitous routes to get where they are.
Burrow, who left Ohio State after failing to earn a starting job, played solidly for LSU in 2018. He became a full-fledged star when the Tigers committed to the spread offense and hired Joe Brady away from the New Orleans Saints to serve as passing game coordinator.
While Burrow, an Ohio native, has fit comfortably into the Louisiana lifestyle — memorably, he donned a jersey that spelled his name “Burreaux’’ for senior night — Hurts faced a more difficult adjustment after transferring to Oklahoma from Alabama.
Guarded and not very vocal, Hurts won over his teammates and coaching staff with his stunning play on the field.
“Respect is earned, not given,’’ Hurts said. “When you’re with a group of men in a new setting, you don’t know any of them, you’re the quarterback, you’re trying to earn their respect, you go in there and lead by example and just do your job. If they wish to follow you, they do. They followed.’’
Hurts led Alabama to the national championship game his first two seasons, only to lose the starting job to Tua Tagovailoa. After watching from the bench as a junior, he graduated early and transferred to Oklahoma to play one more year.
“It’s been an ongoing process,’’ Hurts said. “Taking a leap of faith is probably the best way I can put it.’’
Hurts is back in the playoffs with his new school, while his old school, Alabama, missed out for the first time since the playoff format was launched in 2014.
If Hurts is feeling some satisfaction on the inside, he certainly doesn’t show it.
“It’s just great to have an opportunity to play for another national championship,’’ he said. “That’s what we’ve worked for. We’ve worked for this moment right here.’’