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No. 3 Ohio State and Justin Fields trounce No. 2 Clemson to set up matchup with Alabama for national title

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There will be no matchup between Alabama and Clemson in this edition of the College Football Playoff.

No. 3 Ohio State and QB Justin Fields blitzed the No. 2 Tigers, 49-28, on Friday night in the Sugar Bowl to advance to the national championship game on Jan. 11 against No. 1 Alabama.

It will be the first time Ohio State (7-0) has played for the national championship since the Buckeyes beat Oregon to end the 2014 season. And it’ll be the first time Ohio State plays Alabama since it beat the Crimson Tide in the semifinals of that inaugural College Football Playoff.

Justin Fields was spectacular

Ohio State QB Justin Fields avenged his two-interception performance against Clemson in last season’s Fiesta Bowl with a vengeance. Fields threw six touchdown passes to just six incompletions as Clemson’s defense was out of sorts all evening and incapable of stopping Ohio State’s offense.

Fields made every type of throw he was asked to make. He fired short touchdown passes, passes into tight windows in the end zone, and bombs that traveled over 60 yards in the air. Fields’ fifth TD of the night was a 56-yard TD to Chris Olave and his sixth score of the evening was a 45-yarder to Jameson Williams.

He was especially great after he took a huge hit from Clemson linebacker James Skalski. Fields was down on the ground in the second quarter writhing in pain after Skalski lowered his head and drilled fields in the side. Skalski was called for targeting — the right call based on how the rule is worded — and Fields returned to the game after missing one play and immediately threw a touchdown pass, though he was still in significant pain.

That pass to Olave was the first warning sign that Clemson’s night against the Buckeyes wasn’t going to go according to plan. It put the Buckeyes up 28-14 and Clemson never got within two possessions again.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields gets hit by Clemson linebacker James Skalski during the first half of the Sugar Bowl NCAA college football game Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. Skalski was ejected from the game for targeting.(AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Justin Fields got hit by James Skalski in the second quarter. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Ohio State is definitely not 11th best

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s ranking of Ohio State undoubtedly served as motivation for the Buckeyes entering the game. Swinney had Ohio State at No. 11 in his coaches’ poll ballot because the Buckeyes had played five fewer games than Clemson entering the playoff.

Swinney justified his vote by saying that he didn’t have any teams with that few games in his top 10 while repeatedly noting how Ohio State was capable of beating his team. And he had recently been outspoken about how teams who had a limited number of games shouldn’t be considered for the playoff.

That was a different stance than the one he had in September after the Big Ten had announced its eight-game schedule. Swinney said then that he’d have no problem with a Big Ten team being part of the playoff.

Swinney’s ranking of Ohio State would have looked prescient if his Tigers blew out the Buckeyes. Instead, it looks foolish and a little arrogant even if the Big Ten had to change its pandemic-inspired rules during the last week of the season to ensure the Buckeyes could play for the conference title.

Heck, even LeBron James took notice of Swinney’s ranking during the final seconds of the game.

How much did Clemson miss Tony Elliott?

Clemson (10-2) entered the game without offensive coordinator Tony Elliott after Elliott tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week. That left the play-calling duties to passing game coordinator Brandon Streeter and Swinney.

And it’s hard not to wonder if Clemson’s offense significantly felt Elliott’s absence. The Tigers’ opening drive was fantastic. It took Clemson less than three minutes to go 82 yards in eight plays for a TD. But the offense was out of sorts the rest of the night.

That was evident in the running game as Clemson struggled to find any push against Ohio State’s defense. The Tigers attacked the edges of Ohio State’s defense early but never got anything going on the ground the rest of the night. Star running back Travis Etienne had just 10 carries for 32 yards.

Ohio State defensive tackle Tommy Togiai (72) blocks a pass by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence during the second half of the Sugar Bowl NCAA college football game Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Trevor Lawrence lost for just the second time as Clemson's starting QB. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Trevor Lawrence’s college career likely over

Friday night was probably the last time we’ll see Trevor Lawrence play in a Clemson uniform. The presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft and future Jacksonville Jaguars QB was 33-of-48 passing for 400 yards and two touchdowns and an interception, though his third-quarter fumble all but sealed Clemson’s loss and he had two other fumbles that were recovered by teammates.

Lawrence will end his college career with one national title and three College Football Playoff appearances. The Tigers won the national title when Lawrence was a freshman and lost to LSU in the national title game at the end of the 2019 season. The LSU loss and Friday night’s loss are the only two games Clemson has lost with Lawrence as a starter. The Tigers’ other loss in 2020 came with Lawrence out after he tested positive for COVID-19.

On the opposite sideline, Fields might have elevated his NFL draft status. Fields hasn’t been seen as the surefire NFL lock that Lawrence is, though it’s impossible to ignore the impact of his Sugar Bowl performance on his draft status. Fields outplayed Lawrence and made nearly every throw NFL scouts could want from him.

Fields finished the game 22-of-28 passing for 385 yards and those six TDs.

Ohio State had over 500 yards

Clemson’s defense had no answer for Fields or for Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon on the ground. Sermon was the key to Ohio State’s Big Ten championship game win over Northwestern and rushed for 191 yards on Friday night.

Sermon had to carry the rushing load for the Buckeyes with Master Teague out and was the only Buckeye to have more than 10 carries.

Sermon has now rushed for over 100 yards in each of Ohio State’s last three games after failing to rush for over 70 yards in any of Ohio State’s first four games of the season. Sermon rushed for 331 yards on 29 carries against Northwestern as the Buckeyes came back from a 10-6 halftime deficit to win, 22-10.

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