PHOENIX — Clemson is back in Arizona, hoping to celebrate a College Football Playoff victory in the same stadium the Tigers came up just short of a national championship last season.
Ohio State’s postseason game last season was also here, though the memories for the Buckeyes are much better.
No. 2 Ohio State (11-1) and No. 3 Clemson (12-1) landed at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport late Monday afternoon about an hour apart. The Buckeyes and Tigers are both making their second trips to the College Football Playoff and will meet Saturday in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal.
Bowl week started with red carpet arrivals for the teams, greeted by some fans and a couple dozen bowl representatives and volunteers in bright yellow jackets as they deplaned like visiting heads of state.
Coach Dabo Swinney has been selling his team on putting last season’s 45-40 championship game loss to Alabama behind it by winning this trip to University of Phoenix Stadium.
“This is a new team, a new season, a new opportunity,” Swinney said.
Though the Atlantic Coast Conference champions return with many of the key contributors from last season’s team, most notably quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Heisman Trophy runner-up.
Ohio State won the first College Football Playoff before falling short of the final four last season. The Buckeyes finished off 2015 with a 44-28 victory against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
“We’re here for a reason,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. “We’re here to enjoy the sunshine, the desert and most importantly to put on a good performance against a great football team in Clemson. I couldn’t imagine being in a better place with a better group of people than my players and my coaching staff.”
Much of the core of the Ohio State team that won the 2014 national title and then went 12-1 last year is gone. Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa were part of one of the most heralded NFL draft classes any school has ever produced.
All-America center Pat Elflein is one of the few Buckeyes who started for the national championship team and last year against Notre Dame that are back for Ohio State this year.
“It’s always a little different feel because you’re playing for it all, but we approach every game the same,” Elflein said. “With a younger team this year, we’re just relying on the leadership from the guys who have been in the playoff before to teach those guys how to prepare and how to get ready mentally for a big game like this coming up.”
Both coaches said all their players had made the trip to Arizona.
The Tigers and Buckeyes last played in the 2014 Orange Bowl, with Clemson winning 40-35. This will be the second matchup of Swinney and Meyer, who is 61-5 in five seasons at Ohio State. Meyer also won two national championships at Florida, including his first in 2006 here in Arizona.
Swinney compared Meyer to Knute Rockne, the great Notre Dame coach of 1920s who had a .881 winning percentage. Meyer’s is .851. Swinney said he has Meyer’s book, “Above The Line,” and joked about trying to get it read in the next couple of days to learn some secrets.
“If y’all got the Cliff Notes, send them my way,” Swinney said.