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Sapakoff: Clemson won’t take the College Football Playoff underdog bait

December 30, 2016

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – There will be fascinating individual battles all over the field Saturday night at University of Phoenix Stadium, either position comparisons or heavyweight matchups.

The great Deshaun Watson is 30-3 as a Clemson starting quarterback going into a Fiesta Bowl game that doubles as a College Football Playoff semifinal. Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett is 26-3.

Can Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables come up with a way to limit versatile Buckeyes running back Curtis Samuel as a pass receiver? For four quarters and, if necessary, overtime?

Can Ohio State block Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins?

Both teams have true freshmen starters on the offensive line, Clemson right tackle Sean Pollard and Ohio State left guard Michael Jordan, a Cincinnati native who went to River Oaks Middle School in North Charleston before moving to Michigan.

But what a difference dry air, cactus and a late December kickoff make on perception. Unlike the regular season when Clemson was the always favored ACC target, the Tigers are underdogs.

That they truly seem to care less is indicative of a maturity that might make the critical difference.

“I don’t worry about those Las Vegas guys,” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said. “A lot of them haven’t played football. They don’t know what Clemson is about; they don’t know how hard we work. So we don’t lose sleep over that at all. When you lose your focus and worry about whether you’re the underdog, that’s when you play like crap.

“If we play to the Clemson standard, we’ll once again probably prove those Las Vegas guys wrong again.”

Several other Tigers essentially echoed the Boulware theory.

The only significant pregame verbal drama this week was Clemson safety Jadar Johnson saying the Tigers have faced better quarterbacks than Barrett. Johnson quickly apologized, though not before getting feedback from players on both sides.

“My advice to Jadar?” Boulware said. “Back it up, dude.”

No crying in baseball.

No bragging before facing Ohio State in a national semifinal.

Goal: Change story

Most of these Tigers are part of a 26-2 run over the last two seasons.

They think they should have beaten Alabama in Glendale, Ariz., last January at the College Football Playoff national championship game.

They also lost to Pittsburgh, last seen leaving the Pinstripe Bowl in The Bronx with a loss to a Northwestern team that came in with a 6-6 record but Big Ten chops.

Now Ohio State, 11-1 and better than the record indicates.

The program that won a national title just two seasons ago, the school with the head coach that has three national championship rings, deserves to be favored.

Just as Alabama deserves the beast share of College Football Playoff limelight.

“Alabama is on top and that’s where everybody wants to be,” Watson said. “That’s the team people should be talking about. But if we can change the story, then we’ll have people talking about us.”

It’s not that Clemson lacks a snarly intensity. It’s quite possible Clemson players after a win over Ohio State will play the “no respect” card, never mind that they are respected enough to be ranked No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings.

It’s more the steady approach that has almost always worked for a few years now.

Lucky underwear

“This is a big game,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “And Troy was a big game. And S.C. State was a big game. If we don’t win those games, we’re not here.”

It’s the steady Clemson way, grins and all. When someone asked Meyer during a joint head coaches’ press conference Friday about “core values” for his coaching staff, Meyer went into a long explanation.

“I thought it was the lucky underwear,” Swinney said. “No, yeah, and I read that in your book, by the way.”

Swinney actually has read Meyer’s 2015 release “Above the Line: Lessons in Life and Leadership from a Championship Season.”

There was no book about the 2013 Ohio State season, which ended with a loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

And a steady no-nonsense approach is the only way to defeat coaches who write books about winning titles.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff