The Orange Bowl should be the more aesthetically pleasing of the two College Football Playoff semifinals, as Clemson (38.5 points per game) and Oklahoma (45.8) bring two of the country’s top 20 scoring offenses. Quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Deshaun Watson are two of the country’s most dynamic, as both can gash defenses throwing and running the ball. Expect the game to be fun showcase for wide-open modern football, but winning it will ultimately come down to which team can make a few stops.
Points of interest
1. The battle at the line of scrimmage
Clemson basically had to overhaul its entire offensive line heading into the season. ACC opponents who played the Tigers this year pointed out that Clemson’s line is considered mediocre and ranked somewhere in the middle to bottom half of the league. But the Tigers’ quick-hit passing game and quarterback run game have been able to compensate for the weaknesses up front.
One of the big keys will be whether Oklahoma’s defense can exploit the Tigers’ front. The Sooners have a menacing outside linebacker in Eric Striker (16 tackles for loss) and active bodies up front in end Charles Tapper and tackles Charles Walker and Matt Dimon. To slow down Clemson, the Sooners need to flummox Watson with pressure and contain the quarterback run game. The best chance to do that is to overwhelm the Tigers’ offensive line.
2. Oklahoma’s offense faces its toughest task
Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield has emerged as one of the best stories in college football this season. He’s a swashbuckling, trash-talking overachiever whose arc from little-known walk-on to Heisman candidate was as swift as it was remarkable. Arguably Mayfield’s defining moment came leading Oklahoma to a comeback double-overtime victory at Tennessee. The Sooners trailed in that game 17–0 and needed 14 fourth-quarter points to tie the game. One thing lost in that game’s magic is how Oklahoma’s offense struggled—at least for three quarters—against the best defense the Sooners would face all season. Tennessee’s strong defensive front limited battering ram tailback Samaje Perine to 3.4 yards per carry and held Oklahoma’s offense without a touchdown until the fourth quarter.
Clemson enters the game with a front seven considered among the best in the ACC. The Tigers are difficult group to move off the ball and develop traction against in the run game. An early key will be how effectively the Sooners can establish their ground game, as they’ll need to be balanced to beat Clemson.
3) How much of a factor is last season’s meeting?
Last year, Clemson blew Oklahoma off the field 40–6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Both sides have dismissed that game because of Oklahoma’s coaching turnover (eight of nine different position coaches), a vastly improved secondary and the addition of Mayfield. But it’s also worth considering that Watson didn’t play that day, as Clemson ragdolled Oklahoma with a backup quarterback Cole Stoudt.
Was Clemson 34 points better than Oklahoma last year? Probably not. But it would be naïve to summarily dismiss that game, especially considering that Clemson’s defense has reloaded to be nearly as formidable as the top-ranked unit that shut down the Sooners last year. Oklahoma may be decisively better than its 2014 version, but Clemson has improved in some areas as well.
Oklahoma's path to the College Football Playoff
Oklahoma 41, Akron 3: Baker Mayfield shined in his debut for the Sooners with 388 yards passing and four total touchdowns against the Zips.
Oklahoma 31, Tennessee 24 (2OT): The Sooners rallied from a 17–3 fourth-quarter deficit, tying the game with 40 seconds left on a Sterling Shepard touchdown reception. Shepard's second touchdown grab in double overtime and Zack Sanchez's interception sealed the win over the Volunteers.
Oklahoma 52, Tulsa 38: Baker Mayfield set a Sooners record with 572 total yards and scored six touchdowns as Oklahoma outpaced the Golden Hurricane. Samaje Perine added 152 yards on the ground and a score.
Oklahoma 44, West Virginia 24: Eric Striker led a dominant defensive effort with 13 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble.The Sooners' defense forced five turnovers while Baker Mayfield continued to shine with 320 yards passing and three touchdowns.
Texas 24, Oklahoma 17: The Longhorns stunned the Sooners in the Red River Rivalry, capitalizing on sloppy tackling to rush for 313 yards. Oklahoma's own ground game got nothing going, gaining just 1.8 yards per carry.
Oklahoma 55, Kansas State 0: The Sooners took out their frustrations from the loss to Texas on the Wildcats, pummeling them for 568 yards of offense while holding them to 110. Baker Mayfield tossed five touchdowns, and Zack Sanchez contributed a pick-six.
Oklahoma 63, Texas Tech 27: The Sooners' ground game ran all over the Red Raiders for 405 yards rushing. Samaje Perine led the charge with 201 yards and four scores while Joe Mixon added 154 yards and two more touchdowns. Oklahoma's defense aided the cause with four turnovers.
Oklahoma 62, Kansas 7: The Sooners had no trouble routing lowly Kansas as Baker Mayfield threw for 383 yards and four touchdowns while Alex Ross and Samaje Perine combined for 193 yards on the ground. Oklahoma's offense produced 710 total yards.
Oklahoma 52, Iowa State 16: Baker Mayfield led the Sooners to a comfortable win over Iowa State with 342 yards passing and four total touchdowns. Led by Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, Oklahoma's rushing attack gained 279 yards on the ground.
Oklahoma 44, Baylor 34: The Sooners passed the first of their three tests to close out the regular season, handing the Bears their first defeat of the season. Sterling Shepard contributed a huge game, catching 14 passes for 177 yards with two touchdowns, and Samaje Perine added 166 yards and two scores on the ground.
Oklahoma 30, TCU 29: With Baker Mayfield out for the second half with a head injury, the Horned Frogs nearly took advantage to steal a win. After Emanuel Porter's touchdown grab brought TCU within one with 51 seconds left, Gary Patterson opted to go for two and the win. But Steven Parker denied the attempt, batting down Bram Kohlhausen's pass to preserve the Sooners' victory.
Oklahoma 58, Oklahoma State 23: The Sooners struck for 44 points before halftime to put away the Cowboys in the Bedlam game and secure their place in the playoff. Oklahoma ran all over Oklahoma State with Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine both topping 130 yards on the ground with four combined touchdowns.
Burning Question: How big of an impact will former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables have?
Venables was recruited to Kansas State by Bob Stoops as a player, coached for him there and later served as his defensive coordinator at Oklahoma from 1999 to 2012. While the Sooners have certainly adjusted schemes under new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, no one knows how Stoops manages a game better than Venables, Clemson’s defensive coordinator for the past four seasons. Could this be an edge for the Tigers? It certainly appeared to be last year.
X-factor: Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett
In the spread-happy Big 12, the Sooners don’t face a lot of top-flight tight ends. How they stop Leggett will be a key, as the junior has 34 receptions for 442 yards this season and is considered one of the best at his position in the country.
22.5: Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson led the country in tackles for loss with 22.5 this season. How well the Sooners can contain him will be a key to getting their offense in rhythm and avoiding third-and-long situations.
Clemson's path to the national championship game
Clemson 49, Wofford 10: The Tigers kicked of the season with a comfortable win over the Terriers in which Clemson scored the first 35 points of the game.
Clemson 41, Appalachian State 10: The Tigers continued to roll through their nonconference schedule with a beatdown of the Mountaineers.
Clemson 20, Louisville 17: The Tigers eked out a win in the ACC opener when Cardinals quarterback Kyle Bolin's last-second heave was intercepted.
Clemson 24, Notre Dame 22: The Tigers prevailed in pouring rain when Carlos Watkins wrapped up Fighting Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer on a potential game-tying two-point try with seven seconds left. A jubilant Dabo Swinney declared after the win, “It was BYOG, bring your own guts.”
Clemson 43, Georgia Tech 24: After two straight tight wins, the Tigers routed the Yellow Jackets, building a 33–10 lead by halftime. All facets of the game clicked as Deshaun Watson and Wayne Gallman each contributed two scores while Clemson's defense held Georgia Tech to 1.7 yards per carry.
Clemson 34, Boston College 17: Deshaun Watson singlehandedly took care of the Eagles with 420 yards passing and four total touchdowns.
Clemson 58, Miami 0: The Tigers pummeled the Hurricanes so badly, Miami opted to fire coach Al Golden after the game. Clemson ran for 416 yards and held Miami to 146 yards of offense.
Clemson 56, NC State 41: Deshaun Watson scored six total touchdowns with 383 yards passing and 54 yards rushing. Wayne Gallman also chipped in 172 yards on the ground to keep the Tigers ahead of the Wolfpack.
Clemson 23, Florida State 13: In their first game ranked No. 1, the Tigers overpowered the Seminoles, wearing them down with over 100 yards rushing from both Deshaun Watson and Wayne Gallman. After a 75-yard touchdown run from Dalvin Cook on the second play from scrimmage, Florida State never reached the end zone again.
Clemson 37, Syracuse 27: Despite three turnovers that helped the Orange hang around, the Tigers pulled away with 473 yards of offense from Deshaun Watson.
Clemson 33, Wake Forest 13: The Tigers' defense shut down the Demon Deacons, holding them to 152 yards of offense and 1.2 yards per carry. Deshaun Watson came through with another big game, passing for 343 yards with four total touchdowns.
Clemson 37, South Carolina 32: With the Tigers needed him most, Deshaun Watson delivered. The quarterback led Clemson on a 75-yard drive, contributing all but three yards himself, to reach the end zone and put the Gamecocks away after they closed within three in the fourth quarter.
Clemson 45, North Carolina 37: The Tigers held off the Tar Heels to win the ACC title and punch their tickets to the playoff. Deshaun Watson put on one last show for Heisman Trophy voters with 289 yards passing, 131 yards rushing and five total touchdowns. Wayne Gallman added another 187 yards and a score on the ground.
Clemson 37, Oklahoma 17: The Tigers piled on 312 rushing yards while limiting the Sooners to just 67 in the Orange Bowl. Clemson blanked Oklahoma in the second half to pull away for the win and advance to the national championship game.
There’s some overriding skepticism around just how good the Big 12 really was this season, as the conference had few marquee victories outside its intraleague showdown games. Oklahoma feasted in its final month on backup quarterbacks, as TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma State all played without their starters. Oklahoma’s revived defense hasn’t faced a quarterback the caliber of Watson, who threw 30 touchdowns this season, ran for 11 more and is perhaps the game’s most dangerous player on the zone read.