Originally Published: December 5, 2016 6 a.m.
GLENDALE (AP) — Ohio State did not play in the Big Ten championship game a year ago and ended up in the Fiesta Bowl instead of the College Football Playoff.
The Buckeyes again missed out on the conference title game this season and are headed back to the Fiesta Bowl. This time, it’s for a spot in the national championship game.
Air Force to face South Alabama in Arizona Bowl
Air Force (9-3, Mountain West) vs. South Alabama (6-6, Sun Belt), Dec. 30, 5:30 EST
LOCATION: Tucson, Arizona
Air Force: RB Tim McVey, 667 yards rushing, 8.3 yards per carry, 10 TDs.
South Alabama: QB Dallas Davis, 2,461 yards, 10 TDs, 11 INTs passing.
Air Force is annually one of the nation’s best rushing teams and finished fourth in the FBS this season, averaging 322.8 yards per game.
South Alabama went 2-6 in conference, but won on the road against Mississippi State and beat then-No. 19 San Diego State.
Air Force is playing in its third straight bowl game. The Falcons lost 55-36 to California in the Armed Forces Bowl last season.
South Alabama is in a bowl game for the second time in three years, with the 2014 Camellia Bowl.
Ohio State finished third in the final CFP rankings on Sunday and will face No. 2 Clemson in the Dec. 31 Fiesta Bowl, setting up a matchup of marquee teams with dynamic quarterbacks.
“It’s great to be here,” said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who also became a grandfather for the first time on Sunday. “We understand how hard it is to make the playoffs and we’re humbled and honored.”
The Buckeyes (11-1) lost their bid for the Big Ten title with a loss to Penn State on Oct. 22. The Nittany Lions went on to win the Big Ten title game on Saturday, rallying from 21 points down to beat No. 5 Wisconsin 38-31.
It wasn’t enough.
Ohio State’s strength of schedule, which included a loss to Oklahoma and was capped by last week’s double-overtime victory over then-No. 3 Michigan, pushed the Buckeyes past Penn State and back to the desert. Ohio State beat Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl a year ago and is the first team in the three years of the CFP to reach the playoffs without winning its conference championship.
“I think this is going to be interesting about strength of schedule because you think of it, if Oklahoma didn’t play us, they’d be in,” Meyer said.
Clemson (12-1) suffered what appeared to be a debilitating loss to unranked Pittsburgh on Nov. 12, but followed up with lopsided wins over Wake Forest and South Carolina.
The Tigers closed out the season with a 42-35 win over No. 18 Virginia Tech in the ACC title game and leapfrogged the Buckeyes in the final CFP standings to No. 2.
Clemson finished No. 3 in The Associated Press Top 25 , a spot behind Ohio State.
Led by dynamic quarterback Deshaun Watson, Clemson lost to Alabama in the national championship game last season in Arizona. Beat the Buckeyes in their return trip to the desert, the Tigers could get another shot at the top-ranked Crimson Tide, who play Washington in the Peach Bowl.
“To return out here to Arizona, we had a little taste of it last year and it was a quick trip, barely remember it,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’re looking forward to having a better time this year.”
A few more things to look for in the Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium:
THE QUARTERBACKS: Watson has been stellar again this season, putting his name in the running for the Heisman Trophy after throwing for 3,626 yards, rushing for 441 and accounting for 38 touchdowns. J.T. Barrett had some inconsistencies during the season, but still threw for 3,275 yards and 33 touchdowns with five interceptions. Both quarterbacks can extend plays with their mobility, which will make it tough on both defenses.
THE SERIES: Clemson and Ohio State have played twice before, both in bowl games. They met in the 2014 Orange Bowl, which the Tigers won 40-35 after Sammy Watkins caught 16 passes for 227 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Clemson won the 1978 Gator Bowl over the Buckeyes 17-15 in Woody Hayes’ last game as Buckeyes coach.
DEFENSE, DEFENSE!: For all the Tigers and Buckeyes can do on offense, it’s their defenses that do the most damage. Ohio State finished fourth nationally in total defense, allowing 282.3 yards per game, and Clemson was ninth at 313.9. Keep an eye on Ohio State freshman Nick Bosa and Clemson senior Ben Boulware — both make plays all over the field.
THE COACHES: Meyer has rebuilt the Buckeyes into a national power in five seasons in Columbus. A two-time national champion at Florida, he won another title with Ohio State after the 2014 season and the Buckeyes have won at least 11 games every season, including a perfect 12-0 record in 2012. Swinney has taken the Tigers to a bowl game in each of his nine seasons, winning at least 10 games the past six.
The Tigers have reached the College Football Playoff under Swinney two of the three years it has existed.
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