SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – In 30 years of covering college football for ESPN, Chris Fowler can only recall one other game he has seen that compares to Saturday night’s College Football Playoff semifinal matchup at the Fiesta Bowl between third-ranked Clemson and No. 2 Ohio State.
“I look back at games in the past that have had this much star power, with teams that roll in with winning streaks like this, and the only parallel that I can find, what I’ve covered, would be the Texas-USC Rose Bowl – the star power of those two teams, Vince Young, Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, both on huge win streaks,” Fowler said to media Friday morning at the JW Marriott Camelback Inn as he prepares to call the Fiesta Bowl with color commentator Kirk Herbstreit.
“Obviously it was a championship game. This isn’t, so it can’t feel the same. But you talk about 28 versus 19 (game winning streaks), five of the top nine vote getters in the Heisman Trophy (Justin Fields, Chase Young, J.K. Dobbins, Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, respectively)… It’s got individual star power, it’s got two teams on a collision course, it’s got history. Clemson’s chasing something that’s very special in the history of the entire sport, three out of four (national championships). Ohio State’s trying to get back where they think they belong. So, in terms of storylines and star power, I haven’t seen many like this.”
Fowler, who served as the host for College GameDay from 1990-2014 before becoming the play-by-play voice for ABC Saturday Night Football in 2014, does not view the Fiesta Bowl as a true toss-up game and understands why the Tigers are a two-point favorite over the Buckeyes.
“You’ve got to find that edge somewhere. I think Clemson’s favored for a reason, to be honest with you,” Fowler said. “You can count on the guys that are the core leaders of that team, especially on offense, kind of delivering in a big game. I don’t discount the fact that Lawrence and Etienne and a lot of those guys who were a part of the championship last year have put together an almost-perfect performance in the championship game against Alabama and beat them by four touchdowns. For Ohio State, they answered a lot of questions against Wisconsin coming off the canvas in their first real postseason game for that group of guys. But to me, I just wouldn’t bet against Trevor Lawrence in these situations, and I think that Clemson is favored for a reason. It doesn’t mean it’s not a very close, competitive game. We sure hope it is, man. We’re all here to see a close game.”
Fowler believes Clemson’s experience in the College Football Playoff, having made it to the playoff five straight years and won two of the last three national championships, will serve the Tigers well when they take the field at 8 p.m. ET for the primetime showdown at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
“I think it counts a lot,” he said. “In 30 years of doing this, I’ve seen plenty of postseason games won with experience and just a steady hand in the big stage. You talk to all the players and coaches who have been through this. There’s a jump in intensity from regular season to conference championship. There’s another jump to the semifinals, another jump to the championship. If you don’t come out and match that energy and that intensity early on and then sustain it, you don’t win.”
Fowler thinks it will be key for the Buckeyes to start fast in order to avoid getting blown by the Tigers like Alabama did in its 44-16 national title game loss to Clemson a season ago.
“I think Alabama got caught last year in a Clemson avalanche,” he said. “The Tigers came out, made big plays early, got momentum going and Alabama sort of tapped out, which is something we hadn’t seen before. If you can make Alabama tap out, you can do anything in this sport. So, I think for that reason, that Clemson is a proven commodity in that department, Ohio State needs to be very aware early on and come out, execute well, be intense and impose themselves and not get punched in the mouth quickly. Because I think we can see playoff games get away from one side if they’re not ready from the jump.”
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