7 on 7: Seven writers weigh in on seven Orange Bowl hot topics

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@postandcourier.com
@Aaron_Brenner | Tiger Tracks on Facebook

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – You’ve gotten accustomed to a weekly check-in with an opposing beat writer leading up to Clemson games. Being a BCS bowl, I thought I’d go all out for the occasion and get seven voices.

I’ve assembled a cross-section of Clemson and Ohio State media, print, web site and television reporters, local and national experts to break down the 2014 Orange Bowl between the No. 7 Buckeyes and No. 12 Tigers.

The roundtable includes seven questions to these seven helpful gentlemen:

- Dave Briggs, OSU beat writer, Toledo Blade (@DBriggsBlade)

- Scott Eisberg, Clemson TV reporter, ABC Charleston (@SEisbergWCIV)

- Dieter Kurtenbach, OSU pool reporter, South Florida Sun Sentinel (@dkurtenbach)

- Sean McDonough, Orange Bowl play-by-play announcer, ESPN (#CLEMvsOSU)

- Hale McGranahan, Clemson beat writer, Scout.com (@HM_CUTigers_com)

- Brandon Rink, Clemson beat writer, Anderson Independent-Mail (@brink_aim)

- Kyle Rowland, OSU beat writer, ElevenWarriors.com (@KyleRowland)

Based on what they’ve done and who they’re going against, would you call the Clemson WRs a significant mismatch Friday night against OSU’s secondary? 

Eisberg: Absolutely, positively. The fact that Ohio State likely won’t have, or will have a non-full strength version of their top DB (Bradley Roby), is a major factor. I know at schools like OSU, it’s next man up, but still a major shot to that group’s confidence and mental state coming into the game. They’ve given up 755 yards in the air their past two weeks; imagine having that in the back of your mind lining up across from a guy like Sammy Watkins. Plus, Watkins, Martavis Bryant and Tajh Boyd know it’s one final time to shine for NFL scouts.

McDonough: Yeah, I think it is. I don’t think it would have been as much of one if Ohio State was healthy in the secondary, but they’re not. I think it’s a tremendous mismatch. People expect a shootout; I think from Ohio State’s standpoint, it better be, because they’re going to have to score to hang in the game, because there’s no doubt they’re going to give up a bunch of points and yards.

McGranahan: I would say so. When New Mexico, New Mexico State and Eastern Michigan are better against the pass than you are, it’s an issue. Those three teams won a combined total of seven games this season. Maybe those teams were down so often that their opponents just didn’t spend much time passing against them, I don’t know. What I do think I know is Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant should both have a field day on Friday.

Rink: Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell’s best comparison for facing Clemson’s offense was what they see in practice, and even then, he didn’t think they had seen a receiver corps like Sammy Watkins and company. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chad Morris loosens them up a little with some sideline-to-sideline passes and then takes a good number of deep shots. The Buckeyes are one of only four teams to give up seven or more completions of 60-plus yards (7) this season, while only two teams have connected on more of them than Clemson (7).

What’s the latest on Ohio State’s defensive health, and how essential are those guys to the overall unit? (NOTE: Noah Spence was officially suspended by the Big Ten Wednesday morning, after each reporter answered the question.)

Briggs: For Ohio State, the latest news is not great. A Buckeyes defense that struggled enough as it was late in the year could be down three starters. Sophomore defensive end and sacks leader Noah Spence did not make the trip with an unspecified personal issue while star cornerback Bradley Roby (knee) and middle linebacker Curtis Grant (back) have dressed but not practiced this week. The loss of Spence and Roby would be big. Spence and freshman Joey Bosa form one of the nation’s better edge-rushing tandems while Roby – a fourth-year junior who has already announced his intention to enter the NFL draft – would be assigned to Sammy Watkins. When Roby went down in the Big Ten title game, Michigan State immediately took advantage.

McDonough: I think it’s a killer, on a defense that hasn’t played particularly well, those two guys are still outstanding players. Roby’s regarded as one of the best defensive backs in the country, and Spence is a guy who makes a lot of plays on the defensive line. I think it’s already an unbelievable challenge for them, and Grant’s a question mark as well. It’s vitally important for Ohio State those guys play.

Kurtenbach: It looks like the Buckeyes are going to be shorthanded for the Orange Bowl, and against Clemson, that could be disastrous. Ohio State has ruled out top pass-rusher Noah Spence and I doubt that Bradley Roby will play. Those are two all-Big Ten players. No team in the nation is deep enough for losses like that not to affect the game-day product.

Rowland: The trip to South Florida hasn’t exactly been sunny for the Buckeyes. Not only is flu-gate becoming an all-too-popular topic, but the possible (and maybe even probable) absences of Noah Spence, Bradley Roby and Curtis Grant are tremendous blows to a beleaguered defense. Spence and Roby are all-Big Ten guys; without those two, the Buckeyes are in for a long night. Applying pressure to Tajh Boyd will be a must, and Spence is the best guy for that. And then you could have a first- or second-round draft pick at cornerback on the bench not covering Sammy Watkins. That’s a recipe for disaster.

The Clemson defense has a Howard’s Rock-sized chip on their shoulder. Have they earned the right to a beef?

Eisberg: No. I know the South Carolina loss wasn’t really their fault; it was the fault of turnovers and them constantly being on the field. But in my opinion, the FSU loss was on the defense’s shoulders. When a team puts up that many points, that quickly, and it spirals out of control, that is on the defense. Guys like Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett have gotten plenty of publicity and ink. To me, they are a “bend don’t break” type defense, not a dominant force type of defense. It’s what they do, they get the job done. But there shouldn’t be “beef” involved.

McDonough: Oh, I don’t know who’s doing the disrespecting. I think nationally, the perception probably lingers for a lot of people is what Florida State did to them; but Florida State did that to everybody. The longer you watch Florida State, the more you realize they probably have an NFL player at just about every position on offense. I know there’s been a lot made of what happened two years ago, but two years is a long time in college football (chuckles.) Different defensive coordinator, different players … I don’t think they’re getting disrespected. When I hear that in sports, people try to bring out the “we’re being disrespected’ card, it sounds like a cheap motivational ploy to get yourself fired up for the game.

McGranahan: Yes, absolutely. They’ve come a long way since that embarrassing display in 2011, and I’m not just talking about that debacle against West Virginia. I think anybody who closely watched the 2011 Clemson defense and the 2013 Clemson defense, would say it’s pretty clear they’ve taken steps in a positive direction.

Rink: Based on this season alone, they can’t really crow until they post a low score in a game like this against an offense the caliber of Ohio State’s. Against Georgia and Florida State – both home games – the Bulldogs and Seminoles averaged 7.8 yards per play. Against a stout South Carolina offense, Brent Venables’ crew held the Gamecocks to their second-lowest yard total of the season (318) and 4.08 per play, and that’s despite four fourth-quarter turnovers.

No matter their motivation going in, this game really defines how exactly we judge this unit.

How many total yards, give or take, do Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde need to run for to satisfy the Buckeyes’ usual attack? 

Briggs: Ohio State’s rushing offense is third nationally (317 yards per game), and that’s due almost entirely to Miller and Hyde. About 300 yards between them would be a good night for OSU, and may be what it needs to keep pace with Clemson. Hard to see this one being a defensive battle.

Kurtenbach: While the satisfaction of amassing a good yardage total might help those guys sleep on Friday night, it’s only the points that matter. I think Miller and Hyde get whatever they want on the ground Friday – I expect more than 325 yards – but we’ll see how many times they can end a possession in a kick.

McDonough: Well, they’re a team that’s shown they can run for 300-plus yards. That’s probably going to be the barometer. In addition to scoring, they’re going to try to do it in a time-consuming, deliberate fashion, which I know isn’t always their way, but it could turn out both teams go up and down the field quickly. But I’d say 300-plus is the target number; they’ve demonstrated they’re capable of doing that, they had 393 against Michigan.

Rowland: The number 300 sounds sufficient. Clemson’s equally impressive offense makes me think that wouldn’t be enough, though. I’ll say 330-340. I don’t think two very good rushing outputs from Miller and Hyde guarantees victory for Ohio State. Miller still needs to throw the ball effectively. If the Buckeyes rush for 330 yards and Miller has an additional 220 through the air, that likely creates a winning situation for OSU.

Both teams lost their last game. Do you expect to see both teams at their best, and do you make much out of motivation issues for disappointed teams?

Briggs: I think the motivation factor is real, especially for Ohio State. The Buckeyes had all their eggs in one bowl, and that was the national championship game. Can they be engaged for the Orange Bowl? Who knows? But they are saying the right things and have history on their side. Meyer is 7-1 in bowl games – including Florida’s BCS title-clinching win over Oklahoma in 2008 at the Orange Bowl – while the championship-or-bust mentality we hear so often in college football is mostly a myth. The last six teams that lost a shot at the national title with a defeat in their final regular-season or conference title contest are 5-1 in bowls.

Eisberg: I expect teams to play their best; I don’t think it has anything to do with motivation.  If you are a competitor, you play to win the game every single time you step on the field. If there is any motivation for Clemson, I don’t think it’s from South Carolina – it’s from the embarrassment of their last trip to Miami against West Virginia. Both teams have head coaches that are firmly in place and seem to be well-liked by players. I always think guys will play hard for coaches like that in programs like that.

Kurtenbach: Motivation matters, and while Ohio State is trying to prove that it’s still part of the elite, Clemson is trying to re-join that group. I think the possibility of promotion motivates Clemson more than the fear of relegation motivates Ohio State. There might not be a true correlation between motivation and early-game play, but I think that we’ll be able to artificially tie the two together in the press box Friday.

McDonough: Gosh, I think when you have a chance to play in a BCS bowl game, you should be motivated. I think both teams probably believe they were capable of headed for something higher, Ohio State particularly all the way to the end thinking they were playing for a national championship. Clemson, once they lost that game to Florida State, it was a long shot to play for the national championship, so I don’t know why they wouldn’t be happy about getting into a BCS bowl game, particularly when they had another loss along the way. You want to make the claim you’re on par with a lot of the other teams playing these BCS bowl games, you better win. You end up as a 3-loss team, it’s very hard to make the argument you’re regarded as one of the best teams in the country.

McGranahan: At first glance, maybe, but I don’t think it will be much of an issue for Ohio State. After being forced to sit out of postseason play in 2012, I have hard time believing those guys won’t be jacked up to play on Friday. Plus, Urban Meyer is a really, really good coach. Motivation didn’t seem to be an issue last year for Clemson when they played LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. I don’t think it was an issue in their last Orange Bowl appearance. Was motivation the case in the 2010 Meineke Car Care Bowl? Yes, in the first half it probably was. And, all the way back in 2009, it wasn’t an issue at the Music City Bowl. To answer the original question, no.

Rink: Clemson seems loose and at the same time focused. I don’t get the vibe that there’s a hangover from the South Carolina loss. Ohio State is harder to judge because it had been so long since they had experienced a loss, and that loss came 60 minutes from a date in BCS Championship Game. I could see Ohio State’s offense not quite at full steam, but it’s hard to imagine the Tiger offense doesn’t have the Buckeyes’ attention.

Rowland: The motivation thing is clearly real. We see it every year during bowl season. The biggest reason I think both teams will come to play is the fact that the winner will get a nice pat on the back and edge themselves into elite status. These are two really good programs that haven’t always won the big games in recent seasons. Now, they’re staring at each other in a famed bowl game with the nation watching.

What will this result mean for the winner, and what will it mean for the loser?

Briggs: I think this is big for the perception of two programs. Is Clemson a very good team that pounded overmatched opponents (the Georgia win not included)? Or is it truly one of the nation’s best programs? The same for Ohio State. The Buckeyes’ run of 24 straight wins was remarkable, but Michigan State was the first top-15 opponent they faced during that run. Ohio State’s schedule questions won’t go away next year, but a win over Clemson would help mitigate them. Perception matters, and strange as it sounds, a win over a strong out-of-conference team in a BCS bowl could help a one-loss OSU team get into the four-team playoff next season.

Eisberg: I think it means MUCH more for Clemson. The legacy of having lost 4 times to USC for this senior class, and,the brutal WVU loss is a huge weight on their shoulders. A BCS bowl win is huge for them and that legacy. With Ohio State, and the fact they had a legit shot just a few weeks ago of playing for a national title, an Orange Bowl win would simply be that, an Orange Bowl win.  I think a Clemson win would mean so much more to this team. Plus, with Dabo Swinney’s gift of gab, he could spin this into their own national championship, invigorate donors and swing recruits.

Kurtenbach: A loss for Ohio State would likely mean that the defense continued its end-of-season tailspin, and that could mean the end of the Luke Fickell era in Columbus – it would at least provide him with an extremely hot seat going into next year. An Ohio State win would likely help Braxton Miller’s 2014 Heisman candidacy, but I don’t think anything seismic would happen should the Buckeyes win. With Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins leaving at the end of the year, I don’t expect there to be a national narrative shift for Clemson football, going forward, if they were to win or lose. A win might help Boyd’s draft stock though.

McGranahan: If Clemson wins, I think it’ll be a similar kind of feeling to the one after last year’s Chick-fil-A Bowl. Some of the sting of losing to South Carolina again will be taken away. However, if they lose, the natives will be restless, and September is a long way away.

Rink: For Clemson a win means another round of school-firsts and a solid cap to the careers of guys like Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins. The momentum carrying into next season probably isn’t as big as last year’s Chick-fil-A Bowl ‘W,’ given the turnover at quarterback and receiver, but it certainly doesn’t hurt on the field or the recruiting trail. Going into the season there were the big three games (UGa/FSU/USC) and everybody else, and they won one. Lose here and it’s about as hollow a double-digit win season as can be.

Rowland: I’ve said since the Orange Bowl was announced that these two teams are very similar when it came to why the game was important. Yes, Ohio State and Clemson have won big games the past few years, but they’ve also underachieved. Fair or not, the national perception of both programs involves the dreaded “O” word – overrated. It’s not the national championship game, but I do think the winner gains some confidence and bonus points from the national media going into next season. The loser, on the other, hand has to deal with more negative attention and the stigma of not performing well when the lights are brightest.

All right, guys, let’s hear your prediction. What’s your No. 1 key to victory?

Briggs: Ohio State 42, Clemson 38. If I’m picking just one thing, it’s which team is more engaged. On paper, I think Ohio State is the better team. It’s hard to have much confidence in either defense, and I think the Miller-Hyde tandem give the Buckeyes a slight edge on offense. But both teams are coming off losses and have fallen just short of their biggest goals. Which team will show up? It should be a fun game.

Kurtenbach: I expect a shootout, with Clemson beating Ohio State 52-41. I don’t see many turnovers in the contest, but – here’s a strange notion – I think turnovers decide the game … crazy, right?

Rink: Containing the speedy dual-threat Braxton Miller is a given key for the Tigers, but if Carlos Hyde is gaining close to six yards a clip then Clemson’s really in trouble. They have largely contained opponent’s top rushers since giving up 154 yards and two scores to Georgia’s Todd Gurley. They’ll have to ride that formula again. However much it may displease Venables, this is a “one more stop” kind of game if Boyd isn’t torching Ohio State’s secondary – and they get it. Clemson limits turnovers and pulls out a 38-34 win.

Eisberg: I think it’s a tight ballgame, but I think with the leadership and experience of the Tigers, they really have a chance. I don’t think Clemson’s offense is an issue at all, if the defense can “contain” the two headed monster of Miller and Hyde, I have no doubt in my mind that Clemson puts up more than enough points to beat Ohio State. 35-21, Clemson. Put it in the Books!

McGranahan: Still wrestling with a final result — I’ll have my best guess at that by Friday. But I do think there will be plenty of yards, points and kickoffs by both teams. As much as I hate to say it, because it’s so coach-speakish, but turnovers are the key. Over the last three years, when Clemson has turned the ball over, they usually lose. When they don’t, they usually win. It really is that simple. I think.

Rowland: Based on the way things are trending – Ohio State missing key defensive players – Clemson could win big. I was siding with the Buckeyes until this week, but I’m starting to think something like 42-31 Clemson. In my opinion. Ohio State’s defense and defensive line are the biggest keys. Boyd can be mentally fragile at times. If the Buckeyes pressure him and knock him down, he might not be the guy slinging it around for 300-plus yards and three touchdowns. At the same time, the deficiencies for Ohio State have been so great recently that Boyd could have another night like he did against LSU in last season’s Chick-fil-A Bowl.

-AB

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