NEW ORLEANS — Everybody loves a comeback story, and both the second-ranked Clemson Tigers and the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes enter the Sugar Bowl looking for redemption of sorts behind their junior quarterbacks.
For Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers, this College Football Playoff semifinal brings them back to the site of last season's national championship game loss to LSU. For Justin Fields and the Buckeyes, the visit to the Superdome is a chance to avenge their most recent defeat, a thrilling semifinal against Clemson last year that effectively ended with Fields being intercepted in the end zone.
"You've got to face a little bit of adversity," Lawrence said this week, "and sometimes you're a little bit blinded by success if you don't have any hiccups along the way."
Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson (10-1) and Big Ten winner Ohio State (6-0) meet in the four-team playoff for the third time Friday night, with the winner moving on to the national championship game against either No. 1 Alabama (11-0) or No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1) — who face off in Friday's other semifinal, a Rose Bowl being played in Arlington, Texas — on Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Clemson has won both the previous CFP meetings with Ohio State. Throw in an Orange Bowl with the Buckeyes that the Tigers also won in 2014, and this feels like a budding rivalry.
It certainly sounded like one at times leading up the game, starting with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney insisting Ohio State's six-game schedule in this pandemic-altered season should not have been enough to earn a playoff spot.
Swinney slotted Ohio State 11th in his final coaches' poll ballot, explaining he didn't put any team with fewer than nine games in the top 10. However, he also showered praise on the Buckeyes and coach Ryan Day.
"So people take it personal, but it's nothing personal at all," Swinney said.
Day admitted with a grin on a Zoom news conference with Swinney this week that he was glad his counterpart wasn't on the CPF selection committee. Day's players might not be taking the outside views of them as well.
"We're going into this game not respected at all," All-America offensive lineman Wyatt Davis.
As for a rivalry, the Tigers do not seem to have really bought in to that idea.
"They have more beef with us than we have with them," Clemson receiver Amari Rodgers said.
It has all made for an interesting subplot to a game that will almost certainly be the college finale for the losing quarterback. Lawrence and Fields, both Georgia natives and former five-star recruits in the same freshman class, are expected to be among the first few players selected in the 2021 NFL draft.
Lawrence is a Heisman Trophy finalist and the presumptive No. 1 overall pick. He led the Tigers to a national championship as a freshman and got them back to the title game last season. Clemson is 34-1 with him as the starter.
"He's as good as there's ever been," Swinney said. "I'll let other people argue if he's the best ever."
Fields was a Heisman finalist last year and followed that up with a mostly excellent performance in the playoff. In the first game he and Lawrence ever played against each other, Fields passed for 320 yards. His final throw was picked off in the end zone by Clemson safety Nolan Turner after the intended receiver slipped.
Clemson won 29-23 in a game Ohio State led 16-0 that featured a couple of critical close calls by the officials that went the Tigers way.
"So that has kind of been our whole motivation this offseason. Just getting the chance to play those guys again is a great opportunity," Fields said. "Of course, we know Clemson is a great team. Great coaching staff, great players. So we're just excited to be on the same stage as them and getting another chance to play those guys."
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, only 3,000 fans are expected to be in attendance at the Sugar Bowl. Attendance for last season's title game with LSU and Clemson at the Superdome was 76,885.
Clemson will be without offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, who is in COVID-19 protocol and did not make the trip to New Orleans. Swinney said quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter will fill Elliott's role in the coach's box. Former Clemson star C.J. Spiller, who has been working as an intern under Elliott, will be elevated to running backs coach and be on the sideline.
Swinney said two players did not make the trip Wednesday to New Orleans, one walk-on and one scholarship player, but did not identify them.
As for the Buckeyes, they were scheduled to leave Columbus on Thursday after one more round of COVID-19 testing. They have been without numerous players their past two games because of virus protocols, though star receiver Chris Olave is expected back in the lineup.
Said Day: "Full strength is a floating target right now."