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Russell Athletic Bowl Preview and Prediction: Oklahoma vs. Clemson

Clemson Tigers

Clemson Tigers

What a difference a year makes? Clemson and Oklahoma both topped current members (Ohio State and Alabama, respectively)of the College Football Playoff in BCS bowls last year.

Neither team envisioned a trip to Orlando this postseason, but the folks at the Russell Athletic Bowl should be ecstatic to get two historic brands coming to town to play in the newly renovated Citrus Bowl.

The bowl has changed names seven times, originally starting out in 1990 as the Blockbuster Bowl. This will be the third game under the current title. This is the 16th consecutive bowl game for Oklahoma, all of which have come under Bob Stoops’ leadership. This is Clemson’s 10th consecutive bowl game, the last six coming under Dabo Swinney.

These two powerhouse programs have only played three times but will return to the scene of the crime this winter. Oklahoma won both meetings in Norman in 1963 and '72 with Clemson taking a 13-6 victory in the 1989 Citrus Bowl — the same site of the Russell Athletic Bowl.

It will be the third appearance for Clemson and Oklahoma’s first berth in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

Oklahoma vs. Clemson

Kickoff: 5:30 p.m. ET (Dec. 29)

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Oklahoma -3.5

Oklahoma’s Key to Victory: Win the line of scrimmage

The Sooners are getting healthier and that means Trevor Knight is back under center. It’s a huge boost to get him back but establishing a ground game, protecting the quarterback and winning the line of scrimmage battles along the O-line is still the key for Oklahoma. Against a nasty Clemson front seven, OU needs to get Samaje Perine and company going on the ground while keeping Knight upright and safe. Knight was so electric with time to prepare against an elite defense last year that it's tough to see Clemson fully stopping Oklahoma.

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Clemson's Key to Victory: Create balance on offense

It’s simple and to the point, but Clemson will have to be able to run the ball successfully if it wants to beat the Sooners. Without Deshaun Watson, tailback Wayne Gallman will be called upon to create balance for a struggling Cole Stoudt. Gallman topped 100 yards in three of his final five games and posted 191 yards on 27 carries against rival South Carolina to end the year. The Tigers’ defense is outstanding and will provide a big challenge to Oklahoma but Clemson can’t win without some semblance of an offense. Stoudt hasn’t shown enough against quality opponents to think the Tigers can win relying on his right arm. Not having offensive whiz Chad Morris drawing up plays is going to hurt in a big way as well.

Final Analysis

Clemson has struggled in a big way without Watson under center and Stoudt hasn’t proven the ability to move the ball efficiently and consistently against Power 5 teams. The Tigers' saving grace is one of the best defenses in the land. Oklahoma, meanwhile, is as healthy as it’s been in months on offense and is just as stingy on defense as Clemson. The question of motivation might favor the Tigers but is that enough to overcome what should be an ugly offensive performance?

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Prediction: Oklahoma 27, Clemson 17