Russell Athletic Bowl Preview: Can Oklahoma return to form against Clemson?
Clemson (9-3) vs. Oklahoma (8-4)
Dec. 29, 5:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
• Reason to watch: Few teams were more disappointing relative to expectations this season than Oklahoma. The Sooners entered the year ranked No. 4 in the AP Poll after beating Alabama by double digits in the Sugar Bowl. Then the promise of a 4-0 start evaporated as Oklahoma went 4-4 down the stretch with three home losses, including to Oklahoma State in the Bedlam game. Can the Sooners grab another big postseason win to generate momentum entering the offseason?
Clemson can notch its fourth consecutive double-digit win campaign by beating Oklahoma. The Tigers opened the year 1-2 but won eight of their next nine games, including a 17-point win over South Carolina that snapped a five-game losing streak to the Gamecocks. Clemson led the FBS in total defense and had six players on that side of the ball earn All-ACC recognition. The offense will operate under the guidance of co-coordinators, as Chad Morris recently left for SMU.
• Keep an eye on: A trio of key offensive players possibly returning for Oklahoma. Quarterback Trevor Knight, running back Samaje Perine and wide receiver Sterling Shepard may all play against the Tigers after sustaining injuries during the regular season. Shepard led the Sooners in receiving yards and touchdowns despite being hampered by a groin issue since early November; Perine set an FBS single-game rushing record while emerging as the team’s top tailback; and Knight has proven a more accurate passer than backup Cody Thomas. The trio could provide a lift for the Sooners’ offense.
• Did you know: Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables once held the same position at Oklahoma. Venables served as the Sooners co-defensive coordinator with Mike Stoops from 1999-2003 and was the lone defensive coordinator from 2004-11 before Clemson hired him in January ’12. One of the 12 highest-paid assistants in the country, per a USA Today database, Venables has helped the Tigers make huge strides on defense. After ranking ninth in the ACC in total defense in ’11, Clemson finished eighth, fourth and first, respectively, in that category in three subsequent seasons. Stoops may be familiar with Venables, but moving the ball against Clemson’s stout front could prove challenging.
• Final analysis: While Oklahoma may have its full complement of weapons available, the Tigers will be without Deshaun Watson. The true freshman dual-threat quarterback was initially expected to play in Clemson’s bowl game and have knee surgery in the offseason, but underwent the procedure in December instead. With senior Cole Stoudt under center, Clemson’s offense may not be able to exploit an Oklahoma defense that yielded a combined 86 points in its final two losses. The Sooners could struggle against Clemson’s top-ranked defense, but the potential return of Knight, Perine and Shepard should provide a spark.
• The pick: Oklahoma 27, Clemson 20