At this rate, Ohio State may start calling Clemson “That team down south.”
Some of the vitriol traditionally directed at Michigan, which is known as “That team up north” to the Buckeyes, is now being aimed at the Tigers.
In what is becoming almost an annual matchup, the two powerhouse programs will meet Friday night in New Orleans with a berth in the national championship game at stake, a showdown the Buckeyes have spent a calendar year waiting for.
“We had a whole winter offseason program dedicated to this game,” All-American offensive guard Wyatt Davis said.
The memory of last year’s 29-23 College Football Playoff semifinal loss still stings. Ohio State director of sports performance Mickey Marotti put up the final score in the weight room. In announcing his return for this season, All-American cornerback Shaun Wade posted a video with the caption, “I’m back, Sunshine,” a reference to Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
There was a feeling, at least among fans and some Ohio State players, that the Buckeyes were robbed by two questionable calls that went against them. Up 16-0, Wade was called for a targeting penalty late in the second quarter that resulted in his ejection and flipped momentum. In the third quarter, an Ohio State fumble recovery for a touchdown was reversed.
“It’s pretty self-explanatory — that game hurt us a lot last year,” quarterback Justin Fields said.
It’s more than just that one game, though. Ohio State has never beaten Clemson, losing to them twice in the playoff, as well as the 2014 Orange Bowl and 1978 Gator Bowl. That Gator Bowl was the infamous game that ended Woody Hayes’ coaching career after he punched a Clemson player and ignited a brawl.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has made a habit of tweaking the Buckeyes. In 2017, he landed top Ohio offensive lineman Jackson Carman, telling him then-coach Urban Meyer wouldn’t be there by the time he graduated.
Last week, in the final Amway Coaches poll of the year that is released to the public, Swinney ranked the Buckeyes’ 11th since they had only played six games he said. He recently told ESPN preparing for the game would be a “quick study” and a “little bit easier” due to the limited amount of games Ohio State played. The Ohio State fan site ElevenWarriors.com posted a poll on Twitter asking Buckeyes fans, “Who do you despise more as an Ohio State fan, Jim Harbaugh or Dabo Swinney?” and Swinney overwhelmingly beat the Michigan coach.
“Dabo Swinney might be the most hated man in Ohio at the moment,” said Jason Priestas, founder and publisher of the site. “He’s really the perfect villain. He runs an elite program, he’s undefeated against Ohio State and he has this really weird habit of saying the completely wrong thing at all possible times.”
Ohio State coaches have gotten involved. Coach Ryan Day alluded to Clemson’s alleged signal-stealing that was recently detailed by Sports Illustrated, when asked about matching wits with defensive coordinator Brent Venables, saying he always seems to know what is coming.
“Why that is, I don’t really know,” Day said.
After the Big Ten Championship game victory, he could be seen on video telling his team: “You give us one game against Clemson, against ’Bama or against Notre Dame, we’re gonna [expletive] beat their ass.” Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson mocked Swinney’s comment about Ohio State’s limited schedule by tweeting that he missed some of his 25th wedding anniversary because he was stuck in the office studying No. 2 Clemson’s game film against The Citadel.
There clearly is some level of animosity between the two sides.
Clemson fans view Ohio State more like a little brother it can taunt, according to David Hood, a senior writer for Clemson fan site TigerNet.com. They refer to the Big Ten school as O31O State, plugging in the score of the 2016 Fiesta Bowl blowout where the “H” and “I” go.
Some Clemson players have a similar take on the state of the two teams. When asked about the rivalry, Clemson wide receiver Amari Rodgers dismissed it.
“I feel like they have more beef with us than we have with them,” he said. “That’s on them.”
Several of Rodgers’ teammates, however, acknowledged there is a rivalry, even if it has been one-sided so far. Both are elite programs that will have faced each other in the playoff three of the previous five years. The recent back-and-forth jabs only add to it.
“It just seems to have added a lot of fuel to the buildup of the game,” said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who will call the game.
It’s not just a rivalry on the field. It’s bled out onto the recruiting trail, where the two are now increasingly battling for elite recruits.
Negative recruiting, a standard practice of pointing out deficiencies of a rival, is of course part of it. Swinney telling recruits that Meyer wouldn’t be there when they graduated is the most noteworthy instance, but it goes both ways. Hood said he was told by recruits that in 2016 Ohio State coaches were warning prospects Clemson was going to be on probation for violating NCAA rules.
There are several current players and incoming recruits who were heavily recruited by both programs. Carman and fellow Clemson offensive lineman Matt Bockhorst are from Ohio. Ohio State flipped four-star cornerback Jordan Hancock from Clemson on National Signing Day.
“Clemson rarely loses committed recruits, so to steal one away, especially in COVID when kids can’t take visits, you know that had to feel good,” Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said.
Farrell said the two battle the most for Florida players, and he has noticed the two programs going head-to-head more recently. That’s why Friday is so important for Ohio State. Everything matters in recruiting. The slightest edge can determine a commitment. This is about more than just advancing to the national championship game.
“If Ohio State loses, you’re going to have Clemson saying, ‘hey, you want to go there and get beat in the playoff?’ ” Farrell said. “Ohio State needs to win this game to even the field.”
Otherwise, instead of it being called a rivalry it will be considered a mismatch. The edge of “The Game,” the annual meeting with Michigan, has dulled in recent years, with Ohio State thoroughly dominating the Wolverines.
Clemson has somewhat replaced Michigan. A real rivalry has sprouted. Everyone seems to have a different description or opinion about it. When asked for his, Wade didn’t hesitate.
“I characterize it as we’ve never beat Clemson,” he said. “So we gotta beat them.”