In stark contrast to the Cotton Bowl, the Orange Bowl features two of the country’s best offenses and most talented quarterbacks. Dabo Swinney’s undefeated Clemson Tigers have been outstanding all year and have already beaten three top 10 teams en route to the No. 1 ranking. Oklahoma, meanwhile, was ranked No. 15 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings before steamrolling through the heart of the Big 12 and playing the last month of the season like the best team in the nation. Ahead of the game on Thursday in Miami Gardens, here’s a look at three important matchups to watch that will determine which team earns the right to compete for the national championship.
Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield vs. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson
If there’s one thing you can expect from the Orange Bowl this year, it’s points. And lots of them. Oklahoma and Clemson are each in the top 16 in scoring offense and are led by dynamic playmakers at quarterback. Since losing to Texas, Mayfield has led the Sooners to 44 or more points in six of their last seven games. He’s thrown for 3,389 yards, 35 touchdowns and only five picks this season while proving to be a running threat as well, compiling over 400 yards and seven more touchdowns on the ground. The Texas Tech transfer has been a revelation in Bob Stoops’s offense. His counterpart in the Orange Bowl has been just as good, if not better. Watson accounted for nearly 4,400 yards of total offense and 41 touchdowns, and the Heisman finalist may be more valuable to his team than any other player in college football. Each quarterback is going to make big plays, but whichever one can manage the tempo and protect the football will have a shot at a national title.
Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine vs. Clemson’s front seven
Perine holds the FBS record for rushing yards in a single game for a reason. The sophomore is a human battering ram and an explosive downhill runner who has rushed for 1,219 yards and 15 touchdowns this year. He hit his stride toward the end of the season in Oklahoma’s biggest three games, running for 166 yards, 188 yards and 131 yards against Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State respectively and scored five touchdowns in those games to boot. Perine will be going up against a Clemson rush defense ranked No. 23 nationally that averages 3.7 yards allowed per carry. The only way to slow down the Sooners’ prolific offense is to force Mayfield into third-and-long situations by stuffing the run. If Clemson’s front seven can make Oklahoma one-dimensional, it’ll keep its defense off the field longer and put the ball right where it wants it—back in the hands of Watson.
Clemson wide receiver Artavis Scott vs. Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez
Scott has been a pass-catching machine this year, recording 84 grabs for 805 yards and five touchdowns. The sophomore is so versatile as a deep threat as well as a safety valve for Watson that he’s hard to keep tabs on defensively. His first step is superb, he can change directions on a dime and he will catch anything thrown his way. But so too will Sanchez, who has six picks this season and 14 for his career. He leads the nation’s No. 12 pass efficiency defense and breaks on receivers’ routes almost before they do. With All-America linebacker Eric Striker & Co. applying constant pressure on Watson, the quarterback is going to need to force some tight throws into coverage before he wants to throw them. Who wins the battle on the flank between Scott and Sanchez will go a long way toward determining how effective this Clemson passing attack can be, especially on third down. Tigers receiver Deon Cain’s suspension only adds greater importance to this matchup.