Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer watched the College Football Playoff show on Sunday afternoon from the comforts of a maternity ward at Riverside Methodist Hospital just north of campus, surrounded by family, including daughter Nicki, son-in-law Corey Dennis, and newly born grandson, Troy.
When Meyer saw the graphic of his team at No. 3 in the final College Football Playoff rankings, the team that matched up with the Buckeyes caught his eye. The No. 2 Clemson Tigers, a team Meyer knows a lot about, will play OSU in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona, on New Year’s Eve.
In his fifth year as the head coach of the Scarlet and Gray, Meyer has lost only five times in 66 games. Clemson and coach Dabo Swinney are responsible for one of those losses.
“I know their team very well because I know their coach,” Meyer said. “Excellent staff, excellent head coach, and they’re loaded … We know them, have a lot of respect for them.”
The Tigers defeated the Buckeyes in the Discover Orange Bowl in 2014, handing Meyer only his second loss at the time with OSU.
Swinney has won at least 10 games each of the past six seasons at Clemson for the first time in school history. Last season, the Tigers were 14-0 before losing to the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2016 CFP National Championship game. This season, Clemson returns to the playoff as Atlantic Coast Conference champions still led by arguably the most talented group of playmakers on offense.
“The skill set on offense is over the top. They’re all NFL players,” Meyer said. “They have one of the top, maybe the top or top two or three players in America in Deshaun Watson. They go fast. They’re creative on offense.”
Watson, the junior quarterback from Gainesville, Georgia, has been the Tigers’ starting signal caller for three seasons and is at the heart of the Heisman Trophy race. Watson completed more than 67 percent of his passes and has thrown for 3,914 yards and 37 touchdowns. He has also run for six scores and 529 yards.
Once recruited by Meyer, Watson is also good friends with redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett. The two exchanged text messages on Sunday when they saw they would be playing each other. Barrett said he told Watson, “I’ll see you in Arizona,” and Watson replied “All right, let’s get it.”
First team All-Big Ten defensive lineman, redshirt junior Tyquan Lewis and the rest of the defensive front will likely key on Watson and try to prevent big plays through the air and on the ground.
“(He has) great composure. Very good quarterback,” Lewis said. “(He) can run on the ground, throw the ball, get in the air, tight ends and stuff like that. That’s just from what I saw (Saturday) night.”
But if there’s one knock on Watson, it’s his inability to avoid costly turnovers.
OSU’s defense has been a world-beaters in the passing game in 2016. The Silver Bullets are responsible for 19 interceptions, including a school record seven interceptions returned for touchdowns. Redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker is responsible for three by himself.
Along with Watson, the defense will be facing possibly the most dominant and talented receiving corps in the country. Redshirt junior wide receiver Mike Williams, junior Artavis Scott and senior tight end Jordan Leggett are three of the many targets in the passing game that make the Clemson offense so intimidating. Williams is currently rated as the No. 1 wide receiver prospect for the 2017 NFL draft by CBS Sports. Scott is also in the top 10 receivers and Leggett checks in at No. 4 on the list.
In several points this season, OSU has relied on its defense to spark a less-than-stellar offensive performance. Against Michigan, a touchdown by Hooker and an interception in deep Michigan territory by sophomore linebacker Jerome Baker kept OSU in a game that eventually ended up being the reason the Buckeyes will face the Tigers in the Valley of the Sun on Dec. 31 for a spot in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
If Meyer knows Clemson well, he knows the possibility of his defense creating key turnovers against Watson.
“It’s going to be a good matchup. Our secondary is very good,” Meyer said. “From everything I’m hearing, these are the three or four best receivers we’ll ever face … That side of the ball is going to be a great matchup with their skill against ours.”