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Clemson vs. Oklahoma — Everything You Need to Know for the Orange Bowl

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Clemson and Oklahoma square off in a bowl rematch, but this time the stakes are much higher.

Capital One Orange Bowl – College Football Playoff Semifinal

December 31, 4 p.m. ET (ESPN)

No. 4 Oklahoma vs. No. 1 Clemson

How They Got Here

Top-ranked Clemson made the playoff field as the only undefeated team in college football. The Tigers knocked off North Carolina in the ACC title game to earn just their second conference title in 24 years. After an upset loss to Texas that seems even more inexplicable in hindsight, the Sooners rallied to become one of the hottest teams in the country. They closed their season with consecutive wins over No. 6 Baylor, No. 18 TCU and No. 11 Oklahoma State to earn the Sooners’ first outright Big 12 title since 2010.

When Oklahoma Has the Ball

Oklahoma is third in the nation in scoring (45.8 points per game) thanks to the sparkling play of junior quarterback Baker Mayfield. The former walk-on threw for nearly 3,400 yards and led the Big 12 with 35 touchdown passes. And while he wasn’t really known as a running quarterback, he quietly added 420 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground while finishing fourth in the Heisman voting.

But the key to Oklahoma’s offensive resurgence this year has been the balance between Mayfield’s passing and the “thunder and lightning” running back duo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. The duo has combined for more than 2,000 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns.

It is worth noting that, although Mayfield led a comeback win against Tennessee, OU’s offense struggled for three quarters in that game against the best defense they’ve faced to date. Knowing that the Tigers can keep pace with them on the scoreboard, the Sooners likely won’t have the luxury of a slow start against a Clemson unit that ranks seventh nationally in total defense. Oklahoma will have to find a way to neutralize All-American defensive end Shaq Lawson, who leads the nation with 22.5 tackles for loss.

When Clemson Has the Ball

The Tigers outscored their opponents this year, 500-263, and have never trailed in the fourth quarter. Much of that success goes to record-setting quarterback Deshaun Watson, who finished third in the Heisman voting after averaging over 338 yards per game (good for eighth best nationally) and 41 touchdowns. The sophomore is one of the nation’s top dual threat quarterbacks — he has thrown for over 3,500 yards but is also the Tigers’ second-leading rusher with 887 yards on the ground (third-best nationally among quarterbacks).

But Watson is blessed with an abundance of riches around him. Running back Wayne Gallman was second in the ACC in rushing and top receiver Artavis Scott also ranked second in the conference with 84 catches for 805 yards. Unfortunately, freshman Deon Cain, the Tigers’ second-leading receiver, is among three Clemson players reportedly suspended for the game after failing a drug test.

Clemson humiliated Oklahoma, 40-6, in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl and Oklahoma’s defense is coming into the game with a chip on its shoulder. This year OU certainly has the personnel to provide a much different outcome. Since the loss to Texas, the Sooners have given up an average of just 341 yards and 19 points per game. But they’ll have to pick their poison against a balanced Clemson offense with multiple playmakers.

Keys to the Game

While last year’s loss might give a small measure of motivation for the Sooners, it likely won’t provide much of a barometer for this year’s matchup. Most importantly, the offensive dynamics for both teams are completely different as neither Deshaun Watson nor Baker Mayfield were on the field for their respective teams last year.

If Clemson has a weakness, it is along the offensive line. So the key matchup to watch could be the Oklahoma front seven against that line and Deshaun Watson in the run game. In the Sooners’ wins over Baylor and TCU, both opponents were without their dangerous dual threat quarterbacks (Seth Russell and Trevone Boykin, respectively). So OU has not faced a run/pass threat of Watson’s caliber this year. If the Sooners cannot contain Clemson’s running game, it will allow the Tigers to spread the field against a suspect OU secondary and let Watson, who has completed 69.5 percent of his passes this year (second-best nationally), air it out.

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