Clemson enters its Orange Bowl matchup with Oklahoma undefeated and No. 1 in the country. The Tigers are beating opponents by nearly 20 points per game.
Yet, the linemakers in Las Vegas have installed the No. 4 Sooners as four-point favorites in the first of the two semifinals in this year’s College Football Playoff. Maybe they missed Clemson's 40-6 beatdown of the Sooners last season in the Russell Athletic Bowl?
So, why should we believe that Bob Stoops’ team can turn the tables on Dabo Swinney’s squad on New Year's Eve?
Five Reasons Why Oklahoma Will Win the Orange Bowl
1. Oklahoma has a defense that is familiar with stopping the spread
Oklahoma sees a version of Clemson’s offense just about every week in Big 12 play, where the spread is par for the course. Bob and Mike Stoops have built their defense to combat the high-octane, up-tempo offenses of Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma State and their ilk.
Importantly, OU has star cover men in Zack Sanchez and Jordan Thomas at cornerback, with veterans Steven Parker and Ahmad Thomas rounding out a stellar secondary. The Stoops brothers also emphasize speed and athleticism at linebacker, utilizing all-purpose talents such Jordan Evans and Dom Alexander in passing situations to cover and rush the passer.
Led by dynamic quarterback Deshaun Watson, Clemson’s offense presents the toughest challenge of the year for Oklahoma’s D. However, the Sooners boast a defense designed to slow high-octane attacks, and when it comes to preparing for teams like the Tigers, this is nothing new.
2. Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine can break off big plays
Speaking of elite defenses, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, a former lieutenant of Bob Stoops, has assembled quite the unit of his own. The Tigers’ salty secondary and ferocious pass rush make throwing the ball an adventure for opposing offenses.
If Clemson’s defense does have a flaw, the Tigers are more good than great against the run. Clemson allows 3.7 yards per rush, ranking 30th overall nationally. (To be fair, the Tigers are No. 13 overall in Defensive Rushing S&P+, so they’re more efficient than the raw numbers would suggest.) More specifically, Clemson has given up big plays on the ground, allowing 22 runs of 20 or more yards on the season.
OU’s two-headed backfield monster of Mixon and Perine have showcased their big-play potential all season. Mixon averages 6.8 yards per rush, eighth nationally among players with at least 100 carries, according to cfbstats.com. Workhorse Perine isn’t far behind with 6.1 yards per attempt. Together, the two have combined for nearly 20 runs of 20 yards or more this year.
3. Clemson hasn’t seen a quarterback on par with Baker Mayfield this season
The Sooners lucked out in 2015, catching Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State playing without their starting QBs down the stretch. In Watson, OU is facing easily the best signal-caller it will have seen this year.
That cuts both ways, however.
Mayfield finished second nationally in passer rating while piloting an offense that ranked 10th overall in Offensive Passing S&P+. The best QB Clemson saw this year? Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer (in a driving rainstorm)? North Carolina's Marquise Williams?
Mayfield presents as much of a challenge for Clemson as Watson does for OU.
4. Sterling Shepard is healthy
A groin injury at midseason in 2014 reduced Shepard to a shell of himself down the stretch for the Sooners. When he was actually able to take the field in the final five games of the year, he represented no threat to opposing defenses. Against Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl, Shepard caught just one ball for a meager 13 yards.
No such luck for the Tigers this time. Healthy for the entire season, Shepard played like one of the top pass catchers in the country. He finished the regular season with 79 receptions for an average of 15.2 yards per catch and 11 touchdowns.
Like OU’s entire team, Shepard will come into the Orange Bowl looking for a little redemption versus Clemson after the disappointment of a year ago.
5. Bob Stoops knows the ropes
The “Big Game Bob” tag has come to symbolize Stoops’ record of futility in the spotlight more so than the big wins. However, in this particular case, the fact that Stoops has been in this situation frequently in his 17 seasons as OU’s head coach seems like a positive for the Sooners.
Swinney’s success has reduced “Clemsoning” to a distant memory, but the reality is that he has never had his team in a national championship-type scenario. Even though BCS bowls and conference title games turn up the pressure on programs, Clemson is dealing with a different kind of monster this week.
By virtue of experience, Stoops has a better handle on the distractions away from the field and how to prepare his players.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.