The highly anticipated 2015-16 College Football Playoff kicks off on Thursday afternoon in Miami with Clemson and Oklahoma meeting in a national semifinal in the Orange Bowl. The Tigers finished the regular season at 13-0 and are the only unbeaten team in college football. The Sooners overcame a loss to Texas in early October to earn the final spot in the four-team playoff, finishing the year as one of the hottest teams in the nation on a seven-game winning streak.
Coach Dabo Swinney has raised the bar at Clemson in recent seasons, winning at least 10 games in five consecutive years. The Tigers returned only five starters from last season’s team, yet finished with a school-record 13 victories and two wins is all that separates the program from its first national championship since 1981. Clemson’s rebuilt defense limited opponents to 4.7 yards per play, and the offense averaged 38.5 points per game behind Heisman finalist and quarterback Deshaun Watson. En route to their 13-0 record, the Tigers scored key victories against Notre Dame (24-22), Florida State (23-13) and North Carolina (45-37).
Oklahoma has been a model of consistency and success under coach Bob Stoops, but the Sooners hit an interesting point in Stoops’ tenure after an 8-5 record in 2014. Maintaining success at a high level for a long period of time isn’t easy for any coach. However, Stoops shuffled his coaching staff, and the found a spark on offense behind new coordinator Lincoln Riley and transfer quarterback Baker Mayfield. A loss to Texas in mid-October cast doubt on Oklahoma’s Big 12 title hopes, but the Sooners rebounded in November with huge wins over Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State.
Oklahoma and Clemson have played four previous times on the gridiron. The series is tied at two victories apiece for each team, while the last two matchups took place in bowl games. The Tigers have won the last two meetings against the Sooners.
Orange Bowl: Clemson vs. Oklahoma
Miami Gardens, Fla.
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 31 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Oklahoma -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Baker Mayfield vs. Deshaun Watson
The Orange Bowl should feature one of the best quarterback duels of any postseason game this year. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield emerged as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in his debut in Norman, throwing for 3,389 yards and 35 scores and rushing for 420 yards and seven touchdowns. Mayfield was the perfect triggerman for new coordinator Lincoln Riley’s spread attack, and his ability to escape the rush and avoid sacks was especially critical for an offense with an inexperienced line. Watson made an immediate impact for Clemson in eight games last season, but his true freshman campaign was derailed by injuries. Under the co-coordinator tandem of Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott, Watson has elevated his game even higher as a sophomore. He threw for 3,512 yards and 30 scores this season and ranked second on the team with 887 rushing yards. Watson’s rushing ability was utilized even more late in the year, as he recorded four 100-yard games on the ground over Clemson’s last five contests. There are similarities between the two quarterbacks and how they will approach this matchup. Both players need to use their legs to create plays when things break down in the pocket and take advantage of opportunities downfield to a deep group of skill players in the receiving corps. Both quarterbacks were efficient and limited their overall mistakes in 2015. Will that continue on Thursday night? How will Oklahoma contain Watson’s rushing ability? And when the Sooners are on offense, can Mayfield avoid the initial Clemson pass rush to connect with receiver Sterling Shepard on big plays downfield?
2. Clemson’s Defensive Line Against Oklahoma’s Offensive Line
Despite losing a handful of key contributors on last year’s unit, Clemson’s defense didn’t suffer too much on the stat sheet in 2015. The Tigers ranked third in the ACC by holding opponents to 20.2 points per game and second in the conference in yards per play allowed (4.68). Under the watchful eye of coordinator (and former Oklahoma assistant) Brent Venables, the front seven was a big reason why Clemson’s defense was among the best in the nation. The Tigers generated 38 sacks and 108 tackles for a loss and forced a healthy 23 turnovers in 13 contests. Wreaking havoc at the line of scrimmage starts with the front four, and Venables quickly restocked the cupboard after losing a handful of key players. Junior Shaq Lawson (9.5 sacks) is the top performer, but tackle Carlos Watkins was one of the ACC’s top interior players this season. The Sooners returned only one starter on the offensive line this fall and struggled to find consistency early in the year. However, this unit paved the way for Oklahoma to average at least 4.4 yards per carry in each of the final seven games. The insertion of true freshman Dru Samia into the starting lineup added stability to the right side of the line, while left tackle Orlando Brown got more comfortable over the course of the season. After giving up 36 sacks in 12 contests, Oklahoma needs more from this unit against Clemson. Can the Sooners keep Mayfield upright in the pocket and clear rushing lanes for running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon?
3. The Running Backs
While all of the pregame attention is focused on the quarterbacks – Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield – and the talent at receiver – Clemson’s Artavis Scott and Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard – don’t forget about the running backs in this matchup. Clemson’s Wayne Gallman pounded his way for 1,332 yards and 10 scores this season, while Oklahoma’s one-two combination of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon combined for 2,040 yards. Quarterback play is going to be critical to the outcome of this game on Thursday, but both teams have to establish a presence on the ground. Clemson has been tougher against the run this year, and it’s imperative the Sooners avoid consistently getting into third-and-long situations. Establishing balance is going to be critical for both teams.
Don’t read anything into last year’s game. These are two different teams and plenty of new faces have emerged since last season’s meeting in the Russell Athletic Bowl. On paper, the Orange Bowl matchup is relatively even. Both offenses hope to push the tempo and rely on their quarterback’s mobility to take advantage of big plays when things break down in the pocket, but this game still comes down to the battle in the trenches and the overall play of the defenses. Clemson’s defense has been better than Oklahoma’s this year and has the edge up front on the defensive line. However, the Tigers aren’t deep on defense, and the depth could be an issue if the Sooners establish the run with Perine and Mixon. In addition to being an even contest, the Orange Bowl should be one of the best bowl games of the 2015-16 postseason. If Oklahoma picks up where it left off in the regular season, coach Bob Stoops’ team should be positioned for a trip to the national championship. However, knocking off a month’s worth of rust will be a challenge early. Clemson starts fast, but the Sooners rally in the second half to win a tight, back-and-forth matchup.