What coaches are saying about Clemson-Ohio State

— -- SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Coaches who have faced? Clemson?and? Ohio State?reach two conclusions about the teams.

1. Both belong in the College Football Playoff because of signature wins, established quarterbacks, shrewd coaching and elite talent.

2. Both are vulnerable in not-so-subtle places.

Opposing coaches can't agree on which team will win Saturday night in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl and earn the right to face Alabama or Washington for the national title. Each argument for Clemson is offset by an equally compelling case for Ohio State.

Here's a look at how coaches say the Tigers and Buckeyes should attack each other heading into their showdown at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Alabama might be college football's most dominant team, but it's hard to find a squad with more top-level components than Clemson.

The offense features quarterback Deshaun Watson, wide receiver Mike Williams, running back Wayne Gallman II and tight end Jordan Leggett. Linebacker Ben Boulware and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley headline the defense, along with ferocious linemen Christian Wilkins, Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence. The next three NFL drafts will be loaded with Tigers.

"Their personnel is as good as anybody we've played, period, from top to bottom," an ACC coach said. "They belong in the playoff based on the personnel."?

There were frequent and justified comparisons between Clemson and the 2015 Ohio State team, which went on to produce 12 NFL draft picks.

But Clemson's star power only delivered dominance on occasion. The Tigers lost to unranked Pitt at home and nearly fell to unranked NC State, also in Death Valley. They couldn't pull away from Troy in Week 2 or Virginia Tech in the ACC championship.?

Why did Clemson struggle to click at times? Start with the offensive line.

"Very average," an ACC defensive assistant said. "To me, that's the weak link of the team."

The offensive line had even more question marks entering 2015, but a group of mostly unproven players came together. This season, Clemson had a feast-or-famine run game. The Tigers allowed only 15 sacks, tied for 12th fewest nationally, but Watson faced more pressure and, according to some coaches, made riskier throws than he did last fall.

"It's a big flaw," an ACC coach said of Clemson's offensive line.

The good news for Clemson is Ohio State doesn't generate overwhelming pressure. The Buckeyes are tied for 54th nationally in sacks (26) and tied for 35th in tackles for loss (80). But a Big Ten coach said Clemson must account for defensive end Tyquan Lewis, who leads Ohio State in both sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (10). A Big Ten assistant added that Clemson can attack the Buckeyes with outside zone runs.

"They're good," a coach said, "but it's not like going into the game where you're like, 'S---, we don't have anybody who can block these guys.'"

Offensive-line play will be a critical area for both teams on Saturday. Despite having the Rimington Trophy winner at center in Pat Elflein and one of the nation's best guards in Billy Price, Ohio State has struggled to protect J.T. Barrett. The Buckeyes have allowed 25 sacks, including six in their lone loss to Penn State and eight to Michigan in their most-recent contest.

While there are different theories as to why Ohio State hasn't consistently passed well downfield, several coaches said the problems start up front.

"It was all protection-based," a Big Ten coach said. "They can go downfield. I just don't think they can protect to throw downfield. Both tackles, especially the right tackle [sophomore Isaiah Prince], have been a liability most of the year. They ran the s--- out of J.T. His numbers rushing-wise were astronomical."

Another coach noted that while Prince and left tackle Jamarco Jones?are both talented, big and athletic, they aren't the most physical players and can be bull-rushed. Clemson could attack with Wilkins or Lawrence, who have combined for 10.5 sacks and 37 quarterback pressures. Barrett isn't going to force many throws -- he has only five interceptions in 346 attempts -- but he also could have a harder time running against a Tigers defense with the speed to shrink rushing lanes.

The goal for Clemson, a coach said, is to make Barrett operate as a pure pocket passer.

"[Barrett] didn't miss a throw in 2014," a Power 5 coach said. "He was a great passer. So is that coaching or ability? So what's he being taught to do? What's he looking at? They aren't the same football team without [former offensive coordinator] Tom Herman. Everybody talks about the receivers, but what is the quarterback being told to do? Could the receivers be better if you got them the ball quicker and to the right guy?"

A Power 5 coach noted that while Ohio State's overall skill level is strong, it lacks a second game-changer to complement Curtis Samuel, who has more than twice as many receptions (65) as any other Buckeye and averages 7.7 yards per rush, accounting for a team-leading 15 touchdowns. Opponents who faced Ohio State last year had to deal with Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield and Michael Thomas on the perimeter. Elliott is especially missed, the coach said, not only as a runner but as a pass blocker and in the play-action game.

So how does Ohio State contain Clemson's front seven? Tempo and pre-snap movement. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables likes to survey the offensive alignment before sending in plays, hoping to get the perfect call with the perfect personnel. An ACC assistant said Venables "waits until the last second" to make his calls.

Although Tankersley thinks Venables gradually has sped up his signals, Ohio State can still disrupt Clemson's operation.

"Just snap the ball," Price said. "If you've got a defense that sits around and looks around, and they're looking for the perfect call, just snap the ball, run the play. We have to react based on defenses. It's not based on them standing around."

Ohio State could take some cues from the only team to beat Clemson this season. Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada constantly shifted alignments before the snap, preventing Clemson from countering with the call it wanted. The result: 43 points, 14 yards per completion and four touchdowns in four red-zone trips.

A Power 5 coach said Canada "embarrassed Clemson's defense" with his constant shifting.

"It was crazy," Tankersley said. "We kind of got overwhelmed and made some late adjustments. By then, it was too late."

Ohio State's best offensive weapon fits well with the shifting strategy. Samuel can line up just about anywhere.

"They're going to match up man-free," a Power 5 coach said of Clemson. "And if that's the case, whoever they're going to put on 4 [Samuel], that's going to be the matchup of the game."

Coaches see some parallels between Ohio State's scheme and Clemson's, especially the quarterback run game with Barrett, who averages 4.4 yards per carry despite a team-leading 194 rushes. Although Barrett has been overused at times, he also hasn't played since Nov. 26.

Venables likens Ohio State's option run game to Georgia Tech's, noting that the Buckeyes stress defenses with Barrett the way Georgia Tech does with Justin Thomas.

"It's not like he just takes it and runs a quarterback iso," Venables said. "Usually there's another component. There's formations, there's tempo, there's an edge run that's tied into it, an outside run, there's a read. He's doing what the D-end is telling him to do, just like Thomas does at Georgia Tech."

The kicking game also should loom large Saturday. Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said that special-teams play, along with tackling, is often the area that suffers most during the long layoff before the postseason.

Clemson lost last year's national title game mostly because of special teams, as Alabama had a kick-return touchdown, recovered an onside kick and blocked a Clemson field-goal try. But an ACC coach said Clemson has improved markedly in the kicking game this season, responding to coach Dabo Swinney's offseason challenge.

Special teams played a huge role in Ohio State's lone loss. Penn State blocked both a punt and a field-goal attempt, which it returned for the game-winning touchdown. Coaches say the Buckeyes are still solid overall in special teams, although one noticed "a bit of leakage in their punt protection."

What will decide Saturday's game? A Big Ten coach said quarterback play. An ACC assistant said Ohio State's offense versus Clemson's defense. Several coaches pointed to Clemson's experience.

"I think they're going to beat Ohio State," an ACC coach said. "I'm not a gambler, but I'd put money down if I was. Clemson's got a better football team."