The crown jewel of the 2016 College Football Playoff Semifinals will carry us out of this year, bringing two of the four most successful FBS programs over the last six years together on New Year’s Eve for the most-anticipated game on the bowl schedule — the Fiesta Bowl.

Both No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Ohio State took one on the chin during the season only to battle back into the playoff with a strong close to the season. The Tigers had the advantage of head-to-head wins against its toughest division foes, while the Buckeyes had to get it done on the final week of the regular season, overcoming a rocky start in their thrilling double-overtime win against rival Michigan. At times, both teams have looked unbeatable and put a basketball number on the scoreboard. But evidence from the losses to Pittsburgh and Penn State let us know neither one of these teams is unbeatable.

The winner will perhaps get a shot at Alabama, the one team in college football that looks unbeatable to this point, or maybe Washington, should the double-digit underdogs pull off the biggest playoff upset since the Tide fell to the Buckeyes in 2014.

Viewing information

Date: Saturday, Dec. 31
Time: 7 p.m. ET
Location: University of Phoenix Stadium — Glendale, Arizona

TV channel: ESPN
Live streams: WatchESPN / WatchESPN apps


Clemson: Dabo Swinney and quarterback Deshaun Watson ascended to college football superstardom during the Tigers’ historic run to No. 1 in 2015. The disappointment in the locker room after falling just one score short (45-40) of knocking off Alabama was heavy, but the statement was clear: Clemson will be a perennial playoff contender as long as they’re following B.Y.O.G. and bringing lots of guts. The strong finish to 2015 and comparatively slow start to 2016 put Clemson in the critics’ cross-hairs, but year-over-year totals show a team worthy of finishing its season back in the playoff. The only question is whether they’ll be able to get past the hyper-talented Buckeyes to get another shot in the title game.

But while Dabo’s Clemson team has been forever changed and will continue to thrive, this game could also be the curtain call for the star quarterback who powered the rise. No player in program history has had the impact of Watson, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and the only player in FBS history to throw for 4,000 yards while rushing for 1,000 more in a single season. His numbers are historic and his skill set makes him a matchup nightmare, but turnovers have been an issue for him during this encore performance of a junior season. Living life under the microscope has been easier thanks to a coach and program already on solid ground before his arrival, but it’s impossible to ignore the weight of his college career coming to an end back here in the playoff.

Ohio State: As the first team to make the College Football Playoff without winning its conference (or division for that matter), Ohio State has already become a precedent setter in 2016. No team has benefited more from the “eye test” than the Buckeyes, ranked as the top one-loss team in the land starting Nov. 8 and in every edition of the CFP Rankings until Clemson took the No. 2 spot after winning the ACC title. “The best team other than Alabama is Ohio State,” the committee seemed to say, and no set of Big Ten title scenarios would sway their belief in the Buckeyes. That’s set a certain expectation in place for this group that’s loaded, as usual, with tons of NFL talent.

When quarterback J.T. Barrett is stressing defenses with his command of the offense, putting Mike Weber, Curtis Samuel and others in a position to make plays in space, they can score on anyone in the country. But there are games, like the loss to Penn State, where the Buckeyes have gotten tight, lost the battle up front on offense and had to squeeze all it can get out of the game in other areas. It seems like we’ve seen three-to-four different Ohio State teams this year, sometimes in the same game. With talent being close-to-even (the Buckeyes have a slight advantage per recruiting metrics), there’s no room for anything but Ohio State’s best if it is going to book a trip to Tampa for the title.

But when it comes to getting the best out of your team, it’s hard to bet against Urban Meyer. The three-time national title winner is 45-3 across his career when given more than one week to prepare for his opponent and currently holds a 10-2 record in playoff and bowl games.

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