Clemson-Ohio State rematch is steeped in playoff drama

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One year later, so much has changed.

A global pandemic led to a disrupted and fractured season. Just 3,000 fans will be allowed in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for Friday night’s Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. The world feels like such a different place, after all the lives that were lost, the hardship so many people endured, the uncertain future ahead.

And, yet, so much about No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Ohio State still feels eerily similar.

Ohio State (6-0) wants revenge. Clemson (10-1) wants another crack at a national championship. And Justin Fields wants to one-up friend and fellow Georgia native Trevor Lawrence in what could be either player’s last college game before making jump to the NFL.

The powerhouse programs will be sharing the same field in a College Football Playoff semifinal for the third time in five years. Nearly a year to the day that Clemson staged a stunning and somewhat controversial comeback in the Fiesta Bowl, the two will see each other again with everything on the line.

“Same thing, back in the playoffs, and it’s going to be a great game,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.

In the matchup last year, Ohio State raced out to a 16-0 lead. It looked on its way to a blowout victory. Two questionable calls turned the game. Late in the first half, star cornerback Shaun Wade was called for targeting, resulting in his ejection and keeping a Clemson drive alive. Late in the third quarter, an Ohio State fumble recovery and touchdown was reversed. Lawrence took over the game with his legs, running for a career-best 107 yards and amassing three touchdowns.

“One play can change the whole outlook of the game,” Fields said.

So many of the key players in that game are back. Fields and Lawrence. Wade and Clemson star running back Travis Etienne. Ohio State receiver Chris Olave and Clemson safety Nolan Turner, who made the game-sealing interception in the end zone when Olave broke off his route. Turner will miss the first half, ironically, for a targeting penalty in the ACC championship game.

Since the pairings were announced last Sunday, there has been a lot of talk back and forth between the two teams, starting with Swinney ranking Ohio State 11th in his final Amway Coaches’ poll ballot that was made public.

He added to that by saying preparing for Ohio State would be a “quick study” and a “little bit easier” due to the limited amount of games Ohio State played.

“We definitely heard about it. It was just fuel to our fire,” Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson said, referring to the ranking. All-American offensive guard Wyatt Davis took it as a sign of disrespect.

Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson mocked Swinney’s comment about Ohio State’s limited schedule by tweeting that he missed some of his 25th wedding anniversary because he was stuck in the office studying Clemson’s game film against The Citadel. On Monday, Ohio State coach Ryan Day alluded to Clemson’s alleged signal-stealing — though legal — that was recently detailed by Sports Illustrated, when asked about matching wits with defensive coordinator Brent Venables, saying he always seems to know what is coming. “Why that is, I don’t really know,” Day said.

After the Big Ten championship game victory over Northwestern, Day could be seen on video telling his team: “You give us one game against Clemson, against ’Bama or against Notre Dame, we’re gonna [expletive] beat their ass.”

All the talk has only added to the many intriguing storylines of this game. Fields against Lawrence. Ohio State looking to beat Clemson for the first time and quiet the doubters who questioned the Buckeyes being in this game after playing just six times. The Tigers returning to the scene of their championship game loss last year to LSU and dealing with the absence of offensive coordinator Tony Elliott (COVID-19 protocol).

“It’s that kind of a fairytale story headline,” Clemson tight end Braden Galloway said. “We’re going back to the same place we lost in order to get back to where we were last year. We’re right where we want to be at this time of the year.”

Both programs, no matter their differences, can agree on that.

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