Date: Dec. 31, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN
Location: University of Phoenix Stadium | Glendale, Arizona
No. 3 Ohio State
Best moment: As Curtis Samuel came around the left edge with a clear path to the end zone, the Horseshoe erupted with perhaps the loudest cheer the vaunted stadium has ever produced as Ohio State clinched the comeback, double-overtime victory over Michigan. There hadn’t been all that much to cheer for when the Buckeyes were trailing, allowing the Ohio State fans and players to save up for the celebration and unleash it all at once.
Lowest moment: Urban Meyer’s programs are known for their prolific work on special teams, which made it all the more puzzling and disappointing for Ohio State when its perfect season was lost thanks in large part to two blocked kicks at Penn State. The Buckeyes bounced back, obviously, but that loss certainly created some headaches.
Key player: For all the records J.T. Barrett has broken and the quarterback’s command of the offense, it’s possible Samuel might actually be the true key for the Buckeyes to reach their explosive potential. When the H-back is consistently involved, he’s a matchup nightmare for defenses with his versatility, and he’ll be in the spotlight on the sport’s biggest stage.
Motivation level: Off the charts. The Buckeyes let a chance to repeat as national champs slip away last season with one of the most talented teams in program history, but a hungry group of youngsters is out to prove it can bring home the hardware the way their predecessors did two seasons ago. -- Austin Ward
No. 2 Clemson
Best moment: The regular-season finale against South Carolina was hardly Clemson’s biggest win -- victories over Louisville and at Florida State qualify there -- but it was the Tigers’ most dominant performance, and it came at the perfect time to remind fans this is a team capable of winning it all. The 56-7 blowout of their in-state rival capped a season in which the Tigers had to spend too much time defending close scores, and it showcased quarterback Deshaun Watson as a legitimate Heisman Trophy threat.
Lowest moment: Watson tossed a pick in the end zone in the fourth quarter against Pitt. A touchdown there would have secured an easy win. Instead, Pitt scored to pull within two. Clemson still could have iced the game by simply converting from 1 yard away on third and fourth downs, but failed again. A field goal later, and the Tigers were staring at their first regular-season loss in two years.
Key player: Watson is the superstar on a roster filled with stars. He has shouldered a big chunk of the offense this season, and while he has not run as much as he did in 2015 and his interception total is up, his overall numbers are still stellar and he has a wealth of weapons at his disposal. Watson and the Tigers have endured criticism this season for not living up to their potential, but that was less a matter of poor performance and more a function of the enormous potential this team has.
Motivation level: High. Hey, this is the College Football Playoff, and Clemson has already climbed the mountain once to play in the title game. The Tigers know all too well what it will take to win a national championship, and anything less will feel like they came up short. The entire season has been building to this moment, and no one is going to let the opportunity pass by without a real fight. -- David M. Hale