- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins is not afraid to make his feelings known. To some, this comes off as trash talk. To others, he is just being honest.
Simply put, Watkins does not hold back. So it should come as no surprise, then, that he told reporters after arriving for the Discover Orange Bowl, “I think I’m the best receiver in the nation. ... Overall I think I can’t be guarded. That’s just my mindset.”
How Ohio State covers Watkins is one of the biggest keys to watch heading into the Discover Orange Bowl. Many believe Clemson has the unquestioned advantage with Watkins and his fellow receivers, specifically because the Buckeyes secondary has not played up to standards over the last two games.
That advantage seems to have grown even larger with news on Monday that Ohio State could be without starting cornerback Bradley Roby, rehabbing a knee injury. Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell also confirmed the Buckeyes will start freshman Vonn Bell at nickel cornerback.
Three new starters could be in the Buckeyes secondary against the best receiver group they have faced to date, leaving observers to believe Watkins and Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd are in line for a big day.
“I think our wide receiver group is top 5 in the country,” Watkins said Monday. “We've been playing good all year, not just catching the ball but blocking, taking care of the little things. We definitely have to come out and put on a show. Their defense is pretty good, but for our offense and wide receivers, we've got a better wide receiver corps than they've ever faced in their conference and we've definitely got to show it when we play them.”
Watkins has shown it all season long, rebounding from a down year in 2012 to have one of the best seasons in the country with 85 receptions for 1,237 yards and 10 touchdowns, leading the team in receiving yards, receptions, touchdowns, kickoff return yards and all-purpose yards.
Martavis Bryant ranks second on the team with 800 yards receiving and has shown flashes of brilliance. Their size alone -- Watkins is 6-1, Bryant is 6-5 – gives Clemson a huge edge. Fickell said of the receiver group, “The combination of size and speed is something that's really intriguing.”
Add in what has happened the last two weeks to the Buckeyes’ secondary. Ohio State gave up 451 yards in the air to Michigan -- the Wolverines’ second-highest total on the season -- and then 304 yards passing to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. That ranks as the highest passing total for the Spartans since their quarterbacks threw for 322 yards Sept. 8, 2012, in a blowout win over Central Michigan.
Ohio State ranks No. 103 in the nation in average passing yards allowed (259.5 ypg).
It’s easy to see why Clemson is penciled in to have the edge in the matchup.
“I don't think there's a lack of confidence from our DBs. We believe in ourselves,” Ohio State safety C.J. Barnett said. “But this is a chance to prove to the doubters -- a lot of doubters -- that we can play well and I think we have to go out there and prove it.”
Despite what seems to be an edge on paper, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is not one of those doubters. After practice Monday, he downplayed the potential matchup advantage, saying, “People look at things like that statistically and say they're 100th or whatever in pass defense and you immediately say, hey, that's a great advantage. Well, we look at things a little bit differently. We take the curtain back and we see they've had some inconsistency at times, some mistakes and busts which have led to some things but also one of the things is people having to throw the ball because they can't run it.”
Ohio State ranks No. 6 in the nation in rush defense, but if the Tigers can have success passing the ball the way Michigan and Michigan State did, the run element might not matter. Plus, Watkins has vowed to have the best game of his season, in what most likely is his final game for the Tigers.
Though he says he will not make any announcements until after the bowl game, the junior is the highest-rated receiver on the board for the 2014 draft. Still, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris has done his best to pitch Watkins on the benefits of staying. Namely: seniors get to travel first class on team flights.
“I reminded him of that this week as we got on the plane,” Morris said. “I said, ‘Just think, next year, when you get on a plane, you'll be able to sit in first class.’ Like he always does, he grins ear to ear. He's had a great career, and whatever his decision is, we're going to support him.”
Perhaps one final career game in an outstanding career awaits.
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3dJared Shanker and Andrea Adelson