SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. — It’s hard to tell what has been more prominent this week in The Valley of the Sun, tourists complaining about daily drizzle or media folks whining about Dabo Swinney playing his patented underdog card for the fifth time in five College Football Playoff appearances.
Of course, it’s no surprise Clemson is booked for Saturday night’s Fiesta Bowl in Glendale. It’s a talent-packed team led by skill position stars such as Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne combined with a soft ACC schedule.
And coming off a historic 44-16 victory over a Nick Saban-coached Alabama team.
No one had Clemson in the Quick Lane Bowl.
The Fiesta Bowl underdog is Ohio State, not even a consensus favorite in their Big Ten division coming into the season.
But Swinney, despite his mind-boggling 68-4 record and two national titles over the last five seasons, is right about one “little ‘ol Clemson” thing: Most teams can outscore foes by 35.9 points per game before losing a playoff semifinal game and brag about a very good — even great — season.
A 13-1 record will not answer schedule critics.
The Tigers won’t get their just desserts if they lose in the desert.
A win means the Big Easy, site of the national title game.
A loss means it will be largely difficult to explain the 2019 season.
Evidence suggests Clemson is up to the task.
The heavyweight fight within this semifinal bout is billed as Heisman Trophy finalist Chase Young, one of college football’s best edge rushers in a generation, vs. a veteran Clemson offensive line.
“He’s a physical freak,” senior right tackle Tremayne Anchrum said. “His size (6-5, 265), his speed, his get-off (of his stance) ability are really impressive.”
Clemson blockers have compared Young to Bradley Chubb, the former N.C. State defensive end who was the fifth overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft (Denver Broncos).
But Young needs help; Ohio State didn’t place another defensive lineman on the All-Big Ten first or second team.
Meanwhile, Clemson is one of the few teams capable of at least minimizing Young’s damage.
Clemson vs. NFL talent
“We’re going to see how he is against our tackles first. We don’t want to say we don’t have good enough tackles and have to double-team,” said senior left guard John Simpson (Fort Dorchester High School). “Then if we have to chip him, we will. We’re going into the game confident.”
During this five-year playoff streak, Clemson has won games against teams with NFL-ready players in key spots:
• Oklahoma’s skill group in 2015 included quarterback Baker Mayfield (Cleveland Browns), running back Joe Mixon (Cincinnati Bengals) and wide receiver DeDe Westbrook (Jacksonville Jaguars). Clemson shut them out in the second half of the Orange Bowl to win, 37-17.
• The last time the Tigers were in Arizona, they faced an Ohio State secondary that included four eventual first-round draft picks: Marshon Lattimore (New Orleans Saints), Gareon Conley (drafted by the Oakland Raiders and now with the Houston Texans), Malik Hooker (Indianapolis Colts) and Denzel Ward (Cleveland Browns).
Deshaun Watson led the Tigers to a 31-0 win.
• Alabama had current Washington Redskins teammates Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne on the defensive line when Clemson compiled 511 yards of offense during a 35-31 national championship victory in Tampa after the 2016 season.
• Clemson last January contained a group of Alabama pass-catchers including tight end Irv Smith Jr. (Minnesota Vikings) and wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III (possible first-round picks) in a 44-16 win.
13 sacks all year
Of course, this particular group of Tigers hasn’t won a playoff game yet.
There are 80 freshmen and sophomores on the squad.
Habits, however, convey.
Chase Young is unquestionably magnificent. If Clemson allowed three sacks against Wake Forest, Young (16½ sacks) is capable of matching that.
But Clemson also scored 52 points against the Deacons.
And allowed a total of 13 sacks all season.
The Tigers can silence doubters Saturday night and win the way a lot of people thought they might have to win this year (score a lot of points) before their rebuilt defense came together much better than expected.
Not so little ‘ol Clemson, 30-24.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff