COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Ohio State and Clemson took the field at the Fiesta Bowl in a College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 31, 2016, Clemson was the No. 2 seed, but the No. 3 seed Buckeyes were a 1-point favorite. By kickoff, No. 1 seed Alabama had dominated its semifinal, so the Ohio State-Clemson battle was for another shot at the Tide and the clear role as the primary challenger to Nick Saban’s Tuscaloosa machine.

Back then, Clemson was still behind Ohio State in that race.

• The Buckeyes were just two seasons removed from a national championship, while Clemson hadn’t won a championship in 34 years.

• Ohio State had beaten Alabama two years earlier in the first playoff, while Clemson had lost to the Tide the year before in the championship game.

• Urban Meyer was a three-time national championship coach who was 37-3 in the last three seasons. Dabo Swinney had three ACC titles but no championships and was 36-5 over the last three years.

Then that game happened. Clemson won 31-0 and hasn’t looked back. Ohio State was shut out and had to reevaluate.

The Buckeyes should give the Tigers a tougher test in their next showdown, back in a Fiesta Bowl semifinal on Saturday, Dec. 28, only because the Buckeyes have changed.

“Oh, that was painful,” OSU athletic director Gene Smith remembered. “I think that game showed we needed to elevate our game in recruiting. The Clemson loss showed we needed to change our perspective and look at different positions differently, so we’ve done that.”

The Buckeyes were already well on the way toward wrapping up the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class in 2017 before the loss. But when Smith said the Buckeyes knew they needed to look at different positions in a different way, quarterback is one position where that’s clear.

“We’ve changed a lot since that time,” Smith said.

The changes are why Ohio State is in a far better position to compete with the Tigers. But Clemson is also a different program, one that has been on a steady climb since 31-0.

After beating the Buckeyes, Clemson defeated Alabama to win the title. In 2017, the Tigers were the No. 1 playoff seed, but lost the semifinal to

Alabama. In 2018, the undefeated Tigers won the national title again. Now, they’re in the playoff for the fifth straight season and on a 28-game winning streak.

Meanwhile, Ohio State is back in the playoff for the first time since 31-0.

Here’s what Clemson did to move past the Buckeyes in the last three years, and how Ohio State is trying to catch up.

1. Elite quarterback play

Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is one of the transformational players of the modern era. He never won the Heisman Trophy, but he finished third in 2015 and second in 2016.

He changed Clemson football. Watson took Clemson to a new level. He accounted for 316 yards of offense against an NFL-level OSU secondary. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett put up a total of 125 yards.

It’s Watson who pushed Clemson to these heights, and by following him with Trevor Lawrence, the Tigers have kept rolling the country’s most dangerous offense.

2. Offensive ingenuity

When Ohio State and Clemson faced off in 2013, both teams featured rising offensive minds in coordinators Tom Herman and Chad Morris. Both left for head coaching jobs after 2014. But Clemson was able to replace Morris effectively, while Ohio State struggled without Herman for two years.

Clemson promoted Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott as co-coordinators and didn’t miss a beat. Ohio State promoted Ed Warinner and hired Tim Beck and fell apart. That 31-0 reflected the difference between the Scott/Elliott combo and Warinner/Beck as much as anything.

3. Defensive stability

Defensive coordinator Brent Venables is a centerpiece of Clemson’s success. In his role for eight years, he’s one of the best assistants in the country and has turned down numerous opportunities to leave. Meanwhile, Ohio State since 2012 has moved through eight co-coordinators on defense and now they have to replace another in the departing Jeff Hafley.

4. Lousy conference

Clemson has feasted on an ACC with no chance of keeping up, while Ohio State has maneuvered through a Big Ten that puts up much more resistance. Losses to Iowa and Purdue kept Ohio State from the playoff in 2017 and 2018, and mid-tier teams in the ACC haven’t challenged Clemson the same way.

In the last three seasons, seven ACC teams besides Clemson finished in the final AP Top 25 rankings. none higher than 13th. In the same span, 11 Big Ten teams besides Ohio State finished in the Top 25 – fibe in the top 10.

This season, besides Ohio State, the Big Ten has teams ranked eighth, 10th, 14th, 16th and 18th in the latest CFP rankings. The ACC has a team ranked 24th.

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