It’s unlikely we’ll see a blowout when Ohio State and Clemson face off Saturday in the Fiesta Bowl for a spot in the College Football Playoff final. They boast two of the best offenses and defenses in the nation and are two of three undefeated FBS teams. Clemson, in the playoff for the fifth consecutive year, is trying to be the first repeat national champion since Alabama in 2011 and 2012. Ohio State has motivation from its 31-0 loss to Clemson in their previous playoff meeting – the Fiesta Bowl played after the 2016 season.

The question is whether Clemson has been tested enough during a season in which it played just two ranked opponents (No. 12 Texas A&M in September and No. 22 Virginia in the ACC title game) and won all but one matchup by at least 14 points. Ohio State will be Clemson’s first opponent this year to be rated higher than 32nd by the consensus rating compiled by Kenneth Massey, which audits 106 ranking systems throughout the season.

“You can only play the schedule that you got, and that’s what we’ve done,” explained Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney. “And we’ve earned the right to get into postseason. And we know at this point, you’re playing the best of the best. It doesn’t really matter if you are ranked first, second, third or fourth. This is the four best teams that (have) played throughout the season.”

Swinney spent plenty of time late in the regular season lamenting the popular opinion that his team has played a less-challenging schedule. But it does matter who you’ve played.

Since the College Football Playoff format was adopted in 2014, each eventual champion has played a difficult schedule. Last season, Clemson had the 21st toughest schedule as determined by the Fremeau Efficiency Index, which rates teams based on the per-possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. That was the lowest rating by any team to have advanced to the playoff national championship. In 2019, the Fremeau Efficiency Index ranks Ohio State’s schedule at No. 11 and Clemson’s at No. 82.

You could also argue that despite these two teams being very close in both the playoff rankings and Massey’s consensus rankings – Massey has Ohio State as the highest-rated team in the country and Clemson not far behind at No. 3 – the Buckeyes are more highly regarded than the Tigers by a wide margin. For example, 89 of the 106 ratings audited have Ohio State at No. 1 compared to just six for Clemson. None of the ratings have Ohio State worse than third. This is significant: The team with the higher consensus rating going into the matchup has won 78 percent of the time this season.

Ohio State passes the eye test, too. The Buckeyes lead the country in sacks (51), and the nation’s top defensive player, Chase Young, has 161/2, the most among individual players. Pro Football Focus also rated Young as the best pass-rushing edge defender. If Clemson tries to slow him down with double and triple teams, it will also have to account for Davon Hamilton, Baron Browning, Jashon Cornel, Malik Harrison and Zach Harrison, who each have at least 31/2 sacks. Ohio State is also one of seven FBS teams that allows fewer than 100 rushing yards per game.

Pro Football Focus also had accolades for the Buckeyes offense, led by quarterback Justin Fields, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. The offensive line, affectionately called a bunch of “angry dancing bears,” was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award as one of the most outstanding offensive line units in college football.

“They’re good up front on both sides. They’ve got as good a players there is in college football coming off the edge,” Swinney said. “Their quarterback has been amazing. They’ve got great skill outside and great backs that can run the ball. So this is a very complete team, very well coached. And it’s going to be a challenge.”

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