December 23, 2014

(AP) - Another year, another Clemson vs. Oklahoma bowl game.

Only now, the stakes are immeasurably higher.

Clemson (13-0, No. 1 CFP) will meet Oklahoma (11-1, No. 4 CFP) in the Orange Bowl on Thursday, one of the two semifinal games in this season's College Football Playoff. It's a rematch of last season's Russell Athletic Bowl, a 40-6 romp for the Tigers that served as a springboard of sorts on the way to being the last unbeaten club at the FBS level this season.

And now the Tigers are two wins away from becoming the first 15-0 team in FBS history - not to mention a national championship. The Clemson-Oklahoma winner gets either Alabama or Michigan State to decide who supplants Ohio State as college football's kings.

"We know we're going to have to play our best four quarters of the year," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "That's what these games are all about. There's not a lot of margin for error, certainly when you're playing a team as hot as Oklahoma. They're probably playing the best football of anybody in the country right now."

Whereas Swinney was named The Associated Press coach of the year, quarterback Deshaun Watson received an invite to the Heisman Trophy ceremony but finished third. Watson did win ACC offensive player of the year honors, while fellow All-American Shaq Lawson took home the defensive honor.

While Watson thought it cool to be a Heisman finalist, Swinney said the trophy his quarterback truly wants "is the one they give to the last team standing."

Clemson outscored opponents 500-263 this season, and though the Tigers were tested at times - Notre Dame could have forced overtime with a 2-point conversion in the final seconds of an October matchup - they never trailed in a fourth quarter. The Tigers wrapped up their playoff spot with a 45-37 win over North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game, extending the nation's longest winning streak to 16 games.

"Regardless of who we're playing, it doesn't matter," Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker said. "We're in."

The Tigers are well-versed in how to get around Sun Life Stadium, and embarrassed Miami 58-0 earlier this season on the same field they'll see for the bowl game.

But no team has been to the Orange Bowl more than Oklahoma.

The Sooners - outright winners of the Big 12 title, their ninth in 17 seasons under coach Bob Stoops - are extending their record by heading to the game for the 19th time, 20 if you count a BCS title game that was hosted by the Orange Bowl Committee. Oklahoma could have been doomed by a midseason loss to Texas, but won seven straight by a combined score of 364-136 to climb into the CFP mix.

"It isn't just about the opportunity," Stoops said. "You've got to go down and win."

This will be the fifth meeting between the schools, the series split 2-2 to this point. Oklahoma won regular-season games in 1963 and 1972; Clemson won bowl matchups in 1989 and then again last season.

"I don't think any of it is about getting teams back," Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez said when asked about the rematch with Clemson. "The ultimate motivation right now is winning a national championship."

That Russell Athletic Bowl matchup last season was played without both Clemson's Deshaun Watson (injured) and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield (sitting out to satisfy transfer rules) on the field. They'll be asked to be among the stars of the show on New Year's Eve. Mayfield threw 35 touchdown passes this season, Watson passed for 30. Both ranked among the top nine nationally in that department.

Having Mayfield on the field should make for a more competitive matchup after Trevor Knight, who recently decided to transfer, completed just 13 of 37 passes for 103 yards with three interceptions against Clemson last year. Mayfield had only five interceptions in 354 attempts, completing 68.6 percent for 3,389 yards en route to Big 12 offensive player of the year honors.

The Texas Tech transfer gives credit to first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who led a unit which scored 45.8 points per game to rank third in the FBS.

"He knows he can push me," Mayfield said. "I like being pushed. It's a challenge. I want to get better. He's doing that every day in practice."

While Mayfield can also be a threat with his legs, rushing for 195 yards over the last three games, Watson is a bigger one. He topped 100 yards on the ground in four of the final five games and finished with 11 rushing touchdowns.

Watson was just as dangerous with his arm, and having a healthy Artavis Scott could be a key. The all-ACC first-team receiver recently had a procedure to fix a damaged meniscus in a knee that had bothered him for about a month, but Swinney expects him to be full speed for the Orange Bowl.

Maybe it's a byproduct of the teams facing Watson and Mayfield in practice every day, but good luck passing against either of these clubs. Both finished among the nation's leaders in passer rating defense, with Clemson at No. 7 and Oklahoma at No. 12. Plus, both defenses have logged 38 sacks so far this season, including 10 by Lawson.

Clemson has gotten here despite actually losing the turnover battle this season, giving the ball away 25 times while forcing 23. Oklahoma has been one of the nation's best in turnover margin, with 26 takeaways opposed to 16 giveaways. And during the Sooners' seven-game winning streak they've been even better with 19 takeaways against just seven turnovers.

Five turnovers cost Oklahoma in last year's matchup with the Tigers.

"We had something to do with that," Swinney said. "But at the end of the day, if you turn the ball over against a good team, it's going to get away."

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