Despite a No. 1 ranking and undefeated season, Clemson seems to have many doubters. If you listen to the analysts on television, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone that thinks the Tigers will beat Oklahoma, let alone win the national title. And Las Vegas tends to agree, as the Sooners opened as a three-point favorite.
But Clemson is rightly confident. The Tigers have a high-powered offense and a stout defense. They have been tested by top-10 teams like Florida State and Notre Dame. And they have a coaching staff that relishes the underdog role.
Here are five reasons why Clemson will survive the semifinal battle with Oklahoma and will be playing for the championship on Jan. 11.
5 Reasons Why Clemson Will Win the Orange Bowl
1. Oklahoma’s Defense Has Not Seen Anyone Like Deshaun Watson
During Oklahoma’s sensational run to the College Football Playoff the Sooners had the good fortune of facing backup quarterbacks in their final three games; games that just happened to be their most important contests. But if you look deeper into their schedule, there is even more. The best quarterback Oklahoma battled was probably Patrick Mahomes of Texas Tech. Mahomes is a very good player, but he’s not Watson and the Red Raiders do not have the parts around the quarterback on both sides of the ball that Clemson possesses.
2. Watson, However, Has Defeated Some Great Defenses
Oklahoma has a dynamic pass-rushing duo in Eric Striker and Charles Tapper. They have combined for 26 tackles for lost yardage and 14.5 sacks this season. Also, the Clemson offensive line has heard since the beginning of the year how that unit is the soft spot of the team. But the Tigers’ front allowed just 14 sacks in 13 games and paved the way to 222 yards per game for the nation’s No. 22 rushing offense. And it’s not like they accomplished these feats against inferior opponents. Clemson played against Boston College and its top-ranked defense, Louisville (No. 14) and Florida State (No. 16). Throw in NC State (No. 19) and Clemson has played four teams with better defensive rankings than Oklahoma.
3. Clemson’s Defense is Better than Any on Oklahoma’s Schedule...
And it’s not even close. The Tigers rank No. 7 in total defense, allowing just 296 yards per game. The best defensive team that Oklahoma has faced is Tennessee at No. 45 and that was back in week two. The Sooners’ recent opponents rank way, way down the list. Oklahoma State is 96th in total defense, TCUis at No. 63, and Baylor is 57th. Baker Mayfield is a great quarterback; he has dangerous threats out wide in Sterling Shepard, Dede Westbrook, and Duron Neal; and the running back duo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon is as good as it gets. But the Clemson defense from Shaq Lawson up front through Ben Boulware on the second level to Mackensie Alexander anchoring the back end will give the Sooners trouble.
4. Oklahoma Emotion
The Sooners play with a lot of passion, but sometimes they go too far. With 61.3 penalty yards per game, Oklahoma ranks No. 96 in America compared to Clemson, who averaged 48 penalty yards per game. Bob Stoops’s guys committed eight penalties against both TCU and Baylor. During the game in Waco, the Sooners seemed to come unglued at the end of the first half. A third down stop would have forced the Bears to kick a field goal, but OU’s third personal foul penalty of the half gave Baylor another shot and the Bears scored a touchdown to tie the game at 13. That was followed by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that led to the ejection of starting defensive tackle Matt Dimon. That can't happen on New Year's Eve. There will be a lot of energy in this game and the Tigers have channeled their emotions better than Oklahoma has this season.
5. Edge in the Kicking Game
In close games, especially in highly pressurized contests, the outcome oftentimes comes down to a field goal. Or a missed field goal. In this department, Clemson has the advantage. Greg Huegel assumed the kicking duties for the Tigers when Ammon Lakip was suspended for the first three games. Lakip never got his job back. Huegel, a walk-on that head coach Dabo Swinney joked was discovered while kicking a can at a local grocery store, made 22 of his 25 field goal attempts with a long of 47. Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s Austin Seibert started the year strong, but has missed four kicks from inside of 40 yards in his last six games. After making his first nine field goal attempts, Seibert has missed five of his last 13.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.