By Philip Sikes // Athletic Communications
This one has all the storylines.
One year removed from a dominant, 40-6 Russell Athletic Bowl victory over Oklahoma, Dabo Swinney’s top-ranked Tigers meet the No. 4 Sooners again in postseason play. The rematch, set for New Year’s Eve in the Orange Bowl, was set a day after the Tigers claimed the program’s 15th ACC Championship.
This time, both team’s starting quarterbacks are different. Cole Stoudt put on a show in his final performance as a Tiger, earning MVP honors in Orlando. Trevor Knight, who was battered and bruised by the nation’s No. 1 defense a year ago, has watched as Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield took the reins of Oklahoma’s offense and put it on another level.
Clemson’s defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, will once again face the program he helped build into a perennial power in Norman, Okla. And he is doing it with one of the best defenses in the country, despite the loss of the entire front seven to graduation.
The winner earns the right to advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Glendale, Ariz., on January 11.
In other words, get your popcorn ready, folks.
Clemson Offense vs. Oklahoma Defense
All eyes will be on sophomore sensation Deshaun Watson, the ACC Player-of-the-Year and ACC Championship Game MVP. Watson, a finalist for all of college football’s major offensive awards, has been nothing short of spectacular in 2015.
With just 12 yards in the national semifinal, Watson can pass Tiger great Tajh Boyd for the single-season total offense record at Clemson. His arm has accounted for 3,512 passing yards and 30 touchdowns, while his legs have delivered an additional 887 rushing yards and 11 scores.
One of the biggest differences in Clemson’s success in 2015 has been the running game. Despite returning just one starter on the offensive line in Ryan Norton and losing him to a lengthy injury in the second game of the season, the Tigers have thrived behind an overlooked unit up front. By season’s end, all five starters on the offensive line were named to one of the three All-ACC teams, a first in program history.
Clemson’s offensive line helped pave the way for Watson and running back Wayne Gallman to shred opposing defenses. Gallman enters the Orange Bowl needing just 14 yards to pass Raymond Priester’s single-season school record of 1,345 rushing yards. And he has added 10 touchdowns for a unit averaging 222 yards per game on the ground behind the offensive coordinator tandem of Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott.
In 2014, Stoudt threw to a pair of 100-yard receivers in the bowl victory over the Sooners in Artavis Scott and Mike Williams. Following a neck injury on the first drive of Clemson’s undefeated regular season, Williams has not played since. But Watson has still spread the ball around to a seemingly unlimited set of playmakers.
Scott, a First-Team All-ACC wideout, has snagged 84 balls and five touchdowns. Two of Watson’s other favorite targets at wideout have been senior Charone Peake (40 receptions, five touchdowns) and freshman Deon Cain (34 receptions, five touchdowns). Cain broke Sammy Watkins' freshman record by tallying at least one receiving touchdown in five consecutive games to end the regular season.
One of the emerging weapons for the Tiger offense in 2015 has been tight end Jordan Leggett, a finalist for the Mackey Award. Leggett has a team-high seven receiving touchdowns as Clemson’s biggest threat in the redzone.
The Tiger offense faces the nation’s No. 31 total defense in Oklahoma, a unit yielding 350.7 yards per contest. The Sooners are led on that side of the ball by an opportunistic secondary and are seventh in the nation with 19 interceptions.
Eric Striker returns at linebacker, and the senior has been ultra-productive in his final year. Striker leads the Sooners with 7.5 sacks. He also averages 1.3 tackles for loss per game, a top-25 figure nationally.
Clemson Defense vs. Oklahoma Offense
The general consensus by the outside media was that Clemson would take a step back defensively in 2015. After all, the Tigers lost their entire front seven, which included ACC Defensive Player-of-the-Year and top-10 NFL draft pick Vic Beasley.
That has hardly been the case for Venables’ unit. The Tigers simply reloaded up front, and with a strong group in the secondary, have continued to create havoc for opposing offenses.
Shaq Lawson, a finalist for the Lombardi Award and Nagurski Trophy, has emerged as a star in 2015 after playing two seasons behind Beasley. Lawson actually has more tackles for loss (22.5) than Beasley had in any of his years as a Tiger. He needs just half a sack to reach double-digits, rare air among past Clemson greats.
Not to be overlooked opposite of Lawson is one of Clemson’s top feel-good stories of 2015. Kevin Dodd entered the season with 219 career snaps and just three tackles for loss. The redshirt junior is now one of the ACC’s best after posting eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss.
The tackle spot is still the deepest on Clemson’s defense, despite losing three significant players from 2014 in Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson and DeShawn Williams. The Tigers have been able to regularly rotate starts between Scott Pagano, D.J. Reader, Carlos Watkins and Christian Wilkins.
Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson were backups in 2014, but they have stepped into primary roles this season. The two have not disappointed. Goodson, who came to Clemson in the same linebacker signing class with current NFL players Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward, leads the Tigers in tackles. He has 14 stops behind the line of scrimmage and came up with key fourth-quarter takeaways in wins over nationally-ranked foes Notre Dame and Florida State.
Boulware plays with a reckless abandon, as he is second on the team in tackles. He made his mark by starting in place of Anthony in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl, where he returned an interception 47 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.
On the back end defensively, the Tigers have three All-ACC players, led by Thorpe Award semifinalist and lockdown cornerback Mackensie Alexander. Opponents have completed just 10 passes against the charismatic defender all season. Opposite of him, Cordrea Tankersley has emerged in 2015 to lead the team with five interceptions and nine pass breakups.
Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green give Clemson’s defense a solid 1-2 punch at safety. Kearse, rangy at 6’5” and 220 pounds, is adept both on the back end and behind the line of scrimmage. Green has been a tackling machine in his first season as the starting free safety.
The Tigers will again be tasked with stopping Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine, who has rushed for 108 yards per game with 15 touchdowns. But the biggest difference-maker for the Sooners has been their quarterback, Mayfield.
A finalist for most of the same awards as Watson, Mayfield has passed for 3,389 yards and 35 touchdowns, while adding seven scores and an additional 420 yards on the ground. His 178.9 passing efficiency is second in the nation.
Sterling Shepard continues to be Oklahoma’s top receiving threat. He has produced 79 catches with 11 touchdowns. Also among Mayfield’s favorite targets are Dede Westbrook and Mark Andrews, who have combined for 10 touchdowns.
Clemson’s unit received an unexpected boost in the form of walk-on placekicker Greg Huegel, who is 22-25 on field-goal attempts this season. He missed just one field goal against ACC competition, and it came in the championship game against North Carolina. Andy Teasdall has been solid for the Tigers, putting 19 punts inside the 20 without a touchback.
Oklahoma counters with Austin Seibert, who serves as both placekicker and punter. Seibert is 17-22 on field-goal attempts, while boasting a 42.4-yard average on punts.