The college football calendar tells us that Friday night’s 80th annual Discover Orange Bowl between seventh-ranked Ohio State (12-1) and 12th-ranked Clemson (10-2) is the final BCS appetizer before Monday night’s main course in Pasadena, Calif.
But don’t tell the Buckeyes and Tigers they’re supposed to be playing in some glorified, flavorless exhibition.
Friday night’s showdown at Sun Life Stadium between two high-powered offenses comes with its rewards — and it’s more than just being able to suck down a few oranges during the postgame trophy presentation.
It’s an opportunity for two of the best programs in the country to take another step forward and to remove the bitter taste of late-season defeats from their taste buds.
“There’s only six teams in the country that have been in two BCS bowls the past three years, and we’re one of them,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose Tigers were embarrassed here 70-33 by West Virginia two years ago.
“Four of the other five teams that have been in two out of three have all won BCS bowls. We haven’t. So it’s a great opportunity for us to kind of check that off our list of things we need to accomplish as a program as we continue to climb the mountain.”
Clemson, one of six schools ranked in the top 20 of the BCS for 20 consecutive polls, is motivated by more than just pain.
The Tigers can notch back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time in school history with a win Friday and score a pivotal victory for the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is 3-6 in bowl games this year and 3-12 in BCS games since the series began in 1998.
Ohio State, making its record ninth BCS bowl appearance and first since 2010, has its own reason to dial it up — namely the bitter loss to Rose Bowl champion Michigan State in the Big Ten title game last month.
Urban Meyer knows how deflating a loss like that can be. In 2009, Alabama spoiled his Florida Gators’ No. 1 ranking and a shot at a national championship with a crushing defeat in the Southeastern Conference title game. Last month’s loss felt much the same way.
Meyer said Thursday that he and his assistants went out recruiting for three days after the loss with “the phoniest smile you’ve probably ever seen.” The pain on his players’ faces when he returned to Columbus, Ohio, he said, was equally tough to swallow.
“We had a real emotional meeting — I don’t know if emotional is the right word — like you would with any type of family members that are going through a hard time,” Meyer said. “From that point forward, we’ve been fine. And, obviously, the Orange Bowl has a lot to do with that.”
Meyer, 7-1 in bowl games and 4-0 in BCS games, said he would anticipate from everything he has seen from his team in practice that “the competitive spirit is there.”
“Now, it’s just a matter of are we good enough, in certain spots, to go defeat this team,” said Meyer, whose 2009 Gators responded with a 51-24 rout of third-ranked Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl.
The folks in Las Vegas believe in the Buckeyes. The betting line favors Ohio State by three points and sets the over-under (total points) at 70.
The scoreboard operator could definitely be busy Friday. Behind star quarterback Braxton Miller and meaty tailback Carlos Hyde (6-0, 235), Ohio State averaged 46.3 points (third-most) and 518.5 yards of total offense (seventh).
On the flip side, Ohio State will be minus two huge defensive weapons: injured All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby, who leads the team with 16 pass breakups and three interceptions, and suspended defensive end Noah Spence, who leads the team with eight sacks.
That doesn’t bode well against Clemson’s high-powered aerial connection between senior quarterback Tajh Boyd, the nation’s seventh-most efficient passer, and talented junior Sammy Watkins, considered the best draft-eligible receiver prospect in the nation. Clemson ranks 11th in total offense (502 yards) and eighth in scoring (40.2 points per game).
As banged up as the Buckeyes are, Swinney isn’t letting his team believe it’s going to have an easy time throwing the ball — even if Ohio State ranks 105th against the pass compared with sixth (102.6 yards per game) against the run.
“They have given up some plays, have had some inconsistency [defensively], but I think that the fact they’ve had two 1,000-yard rushers and they’ve won most games pretty handily, all that stuff is skewed,” Swinney said.
“This is a very good football team, a very good defense, a complete team. You don’t luck up and go 24-1 [the past two seasons].”
Clemson’s defense, ranked 51st against the run (152.6), 15th in passing efficiency (111.14) and 17th in scoring (21.1), leads the nation in tackles for loss and is led by defensive end Vic Beasley, who ranks third nationally with 12 sacks.
Still, Miller’s dual-threat ability (1,033 rushing yards, 10 TDs) and efficiency throwing the football (22 TDs, 5 INTs) present a stern challenge for the Tigers.
Might Swinney, known for showing his frustrations on the sideline, reach out and try to tackle Miller himself if Clemson’s defense has another rough night here like it did two years ago?
“That sounds like a loaded question,” Swinney answered before a reporter asked him about the infamous punch Ohio State coach Woody Hayes landed on Clemson nose guard Charlie Bauman in the 1978 Gator Bowl — the last and only time these schools met.
“There’s been a few times I’d loved to have run out there and punched a few guys myself,” Swinney quipped. “But I’ve never crossed that line. I’d like to have tripped a couple of them and climbed on a couple of them’s backs, but that’s just — that’s not part of the game.”