#4 Oklahoma v. #1 Clemson
Sun Life Stadium — Miami Gardens, FL
December 31, 2015 — 4:00 pm Eastern (ESPN)
Why You Should Watch
Sure, it sucks that they put the games with the biggest implications on New Year’s Eve this year. But the second year of the College Football Playoff era is upon us, and this year the selection of the four-team field was relatively uncontroversial. The first of the two semifinals will pit two teams that faced one another in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl, though both teams look completely different than the rosters each faced in that 2014 bowl game. There was little doubt that either an undefeated ACC champion or an undisputed Big 12 champion would be left out of the bracket, and now they get a chance to see whether last year’s matchup was a fluke result or a harbinger of how things transpire on an even bigger stage.
Both teams certainly have plenty of motivation. Left for dead after losing to Texas in the Red River Shootout in October, Oklahoma turned around and won seven straight against the meat of their schedule to claim the Big 12 title. The Sooners will be hungry to avenge last year’s 40-6 blowout loss to the Tigers last year in Orlando. Clemson, meanwhile, built upon that bowl victory to roll through this year’s schedule as the only undefeated FBS team in the country, winning their 13 games by an average margin of victory of over 18 points. The Tigers have a three-game bowl winning streak they’ll try to extend to four in Miami, while the Sooners have a shot at returning to the championship game for the first time since playing for the BCS title in January 2009.
What Each Team Brings to the Table
Only fellow Big 12 schools Baylor and Texas Tech scored more points than the Sooners, who averaged just under 46 points per game against one of the 20 strongest schedules in the country. Baker Mayfield was a revelation at quarterback after transferring from the Red Raiders, finishing the regular season second nationally in passing efficiency and guiding an offense that put up over 540 yards per game. Samaje Perine led the team in rushing, scoring 15 touchdowns and notching just under 1300 yards on the ground, while teammate Joe Mixon added a change of pace with seven scores and 749 yards.
The Oklahoma defense, despite playing some of the most prolific offenses in the country, managed to rank in the top 50 in every major category. The Sooners were slightly better against the pass than the rush, and finished the year allowing fewer than three touchdowns per game against a Big 12 schedule. (Only Tulsa and Baylor managed to score more than 30 points on Oklahoma’s defense, and both teams lost.) Seniors Eric Striker and Charles Tapper combined to put up 14.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss, while a secondary led by Zack Sanchez and Jordan Thomas racked up 19 interceptions in 2015.
The return game was nothing to write home to Norman about this year, while freshman do-it-all kicker/punter Austin Seibert experienced growing pains as he went just 12-for-17 on field goal attempts but made up for it by averaging 42.4 yards per punt. The Sooners had a dominant coverage team on punts, allowing a net average of 41.5 yards on less than one return yards per attempt. The Sooners also have the advantage of the 14th-best turnover margin in the country, largely on the strength of Mayfield’s ball security and the secondary’s pick prowess.
Deshaun Watson was one of the three Heisman finalists this season, eventually finishing third in the voting after a season where he threw for 3500 yards and 30 touchdowns, added nearly 900 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground, and served a solid leadership role for the offense. He was bolstered by 1300-yard rusher Wayne Gallman, as Clemson ranked 23rd nationally in both passing yards and rushing yards per game. The Tigers finished 12th overall in yards gained and 15th in scoring, putting 38.5 points per game on the scoreboard in their 13 victories.
The Tiger defense was just as dominant as its offense, holding opponents to 20 points and fewer than 300 points per game. Teams converted fewer than one-quarter of their third down attempts against Clemson, and just 45 percent of their rare fourth-down chances. The Tigers were good at stealing the ball, though a sometimes-careless offense meant that Dabo Swinney’s team finished tied for 80th in FBS with a negative turnover margin. Teams often found themselves behind the eight ball, as Clemson boasted a top-five defense on first down. A big part of that success was defensive end Shaq Lawson, who led the nation with 22.5 tackles for loss and added 9.5 sacks.
Just like Oklahoma, Clemson was not especially great in special teams. Only one team in the country had a worse punt return average than the Tigers, and the kick return unit barely ranked inside the top 50. Freshman kicker Greg Huegel was among the most accurate in the nation, with an 88 percent success rate on his 25 attempts, while punter Andy Teasdall was another weak spot as he averaged fewer than 40 yards per kick and the team ranked just 67th in FBS in net punting. If Clemson is to remain undefeated and advance to the championship game, it is in spite of rather than due to its third unit.
What is Likely to Happen
Clemson is the undefeated team, but Vegas says that the Sooners are a 3.5-point favorite when the two teams square off for a Florida bowl rematch in Miami. Both teams look rather different than the squads that battled last year 223 miles up the Turnpike in Orlando, though, and they’ve both evolved throughout the course of the season. But there is a reason why the Tigers were able to get past Florida State and take back the ACC title this year.
Watson is the type of dual-threat quarterback that could give the Sooners troubles. Remember, they had the advantage of facing teams like Baylor and TCU without their starting quarterbacks, and they needed two overtimes against Tennessee. Look for Clemson to sustain long drives, moving the chains as the Sooner defense wears down throughout the south Florida night. Lawson and the Tigers will frustrate Mayfield and the Oklahoma offense all evening, as the ACC redeems itself after last year’s egg by FSU in the Rose Bowl to move on to the national championship game for the second time in the past three seasons. In his eighth season at Clemson, Dabo Swinney will finally earn the chance to play for the national title.
Clemson 38, Oklahoma 34
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