Oklahoma vs. Clemson: Five Reasons Sooners Will Get Past Tigers


We’re a little over 24 hours away from the much anticipated College Football Playoff opening-round games, and Oklahoma vs. Clemson is the opening act.

Much has been written and spoken about the teams and the matchup in the opening-round Playoff in the 23 days or so since the Football Final Four participants were announced.

When you look at the tale of the tape comparing the Dec. 31 matchup between the two teams that met last year in the Russell Athletic Bowl almost a year to the day, this season’s edition of the Clemson Tigers and the Oklahoma Sooners, appears to be much more equally matched than how the two teams stacked up a year ago.

Dec 29, 2014; Orlando, FL, USA; Oklahoma Sooners cornerback Jordan Thomas (7) breaks up a pass intended for Clemson Tigers wide receiver Germone Hopper (5) in the first half in the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl at Florida Citrus Bowl. Mandatory Credit: David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

That leads me to  conclude that execution and ball security – plus the ability and lucky breaks of avoiding giving up big plays that eat up huge chunks of real estate – will play the biggest role in determining which team will move on and which team will fall out.

One of the story lines that has been played up quite a bit by the media – interestingly, not so much by the players themselves – is the redemption factor and the added motivation created by the way the Sooners lost to Clemson a year ago. No one expected the Tigers to beat up on the Sooners by a 34-point margin, one of the worst losses in Bob Stoops’ 17 seasons at OU.

It was pretty apparent that the Sooners’ heads were not in last year’s game. Having said that, however, that is no excuse for the inept way they performed, practically from start to finish, which some would argue came very quickly.

While the media likes to play up the redemption card as an X-factor and a locker-room rallying cry that sits on the OU side of the field, the Sooners aren’t the only ones with some added motivation and anger on their side.

Clemson comes into the game as the only undefeated team in the round of four and the top-seeded team in the field. Yet the Las Vegas oddsmakers have established the No. 4 seed, Oklahoma, as a 3.5-point favorite over No. 1 Clemson and give the Sooners a 63 percent probability of winning the game. That sounds to me like enough disrespect to get a team fired up.

Five reasons the Sooners will put this game in the Oklahoma win column:

1) Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon: The two highly talented running backs to gain a lot of yards on the ground. They are used to complement each other and change the rhythm of the rushing attack. On occasion, offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley will put them in the backfield together, or perhaps even split Mixon out as a receiver.

Perine and Mixon have combined for over 2,000 rushing yards this season, averaging 6.1 and 6.7 yards per carry, respectively.

But the pair is also exceptionally skilled catching passes out of the backfield. Mixon has caught 25 passes this season, four for touchdowns, Perine has 13 receptions.

The versatility and balance of Perine, who is like the thunder in the rung game, and Mixon, who provides the lightning, makes them difficult to bring down, and especially when they get to the second level of the defense. One of these two weapons could easily be the impact player of the game.

2) The OU offense vs. the Clemson defense: A key matchup in the game is Oklahoma’s No. 6-ranked total offense, averaging 542.9 yards per game, vs. the No. 7-rated Clemson defense (allowing 295.7 ypg). The Clemson defense has put up great numbers this season under former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables, but the offenses in the Big 12 are more balanced and more prolific at moving the ball and putting up plenty of points.

Nov 28, 2015; Stillwater, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) scrambles for a first down as Oklahoma State Cowboys defensive tackle Motekiai Maile (56) makes the tackle during the first quarter at Boone Pickens Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

As potent as the Sooner offense has been over the second half of the season, Oklahoma ranks third best in the Big 12 behind Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU, who rank one, two, three in the nation, and Oklahoma State is 19th. Clemson (11th) and North Carolina (20th) are the only Atlantic Coast Conference teams in the top 25.

If the Sooners are able to get their run game going, which they should given that the Clemson defensive front is better at pass rush than stopping the running game,  it will allow them to spread and stress the Tiger defense for passing yardage. My belief is that the Tigers have not faced as dangerous an offensive attack as the Sooners present, but all of that hinges on the ability of the offensive line to give Baker Mayfield the time he needs to make plays downfield.

You can build a strong case that Oklahoma is the most complete team in the country, and that fact alone separates the Sooners from the teams that Clemson built up its strong defensive stats against this season. OU has the best combined ranking (24th) in scoring offense (3) and scoring defense (21).

The Sooners are the only FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) team that ranks in the top-35 nationally in points per game, points allowed per game, yards per game (7th), yards allowed per game (31st), rushing yards per game (17th), passing yards per game (18th), sacks per game (4th), interceptions per game (7th), turnover margin (14th) and net punting average seventh.

3) Creating turnovers and creating offense from their defense and holding opponents below their season offensive averages has been a positive for the Sooners in 2015. Oklahoma is one of the best in the nation this season in picking off errant passes and capitalizing on opponents’ giveaways.

The Sooners are among the nation’s leaders in interceptions by the defense with 19. Eleven of those picks are by cornerbacks Zack Sanchez (6) and Jordan Thomas (5). Oklahoma ranks 14th in the nation in turnover margin at plus-10. Clemson owns a minus-two turnover margin, and QB Deshaun Watson has thrown 11 interceptions. The Sooners rank 7th in the nation in interceptions per game, and most of those have come in the back half of the season when OU has been on such a terror.

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4) Oklahoma has beaten four of the five teams that handed the Sooners a loss a year ago. With the exception of TCU, which OU managed to escape with a one-point victory after squandering a 16-point halftime lead, the Sooners have not just beaten the four Big 12 teams that defeated them a year ago, they have done so with an exclamation point.

Oklahoma’s average margin of victory this season over the four teams it lost to last season was 48-21.

All that’s left to make it a clean sweep over the teams that beat the Sooners in 2014 is a victory over Clemson. And from what I hear from the OU players, they are focused and feel good about achieving the clean sweep.

Since inexplicably losing to Texas on Oct. 12 this season, the Sooners have rebounded by reeling off seven consecutive wins, including wins over Kansas State, Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State, outscoring those seven opponents by a combined 228 points and outgained them by an average of 251 yards. The Texas loss was a giant wake-up call that Oklahoma couldn’t just show up and expect to win regardless of bad or how much effort they put into the game.

Both sides of the ball have gotten better each and every week since the annual Red River game, and it could be argued that the Sooners are where they are right now because of the lessons learned in the loss to Texas, the only blemish on OU’s record this season.

Bob Stoops’ 2015 OU football team has beaten five ranked opponents this season, the most of any team in the country. Thje Sooners have beaten the top team in the AP poll seven times in the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) era. Only Notre Dame has more wins against the nation’s top-ranked team during the time period with eight.

OU hasn’t played since Nov. 28, but according to several sources close to the team, practices have been going extremely well, and there is no reason to believe that the Sooners won’t be ready and prepared to pick up right where they left off, on both offense and defense, when the regular season ended.

5) The Oklahoma defense vs. the Clemson offense. The Sooners are vastly improved this season over a year ago, especially in pass defense.

This is not the same down-and-out, youthful Oklahoma defense of last season. It has grown up and gotten much better over a year’s. OU ranked 51st in total defense a year ago; the Sooners are 31st in that category this season.

The most dramatic improvement has come in the back end of the defense. One year ago, the Sooners were 117th among FBS teams in pass defense. This time around they rank 34th in the nation, and that’s after going against some of the most prolific spread offenses in the country in Baylor, Texas Tech, TCU and Oklahoma State.

My prediction: Oklahoma 34 Clemson 30 – Don’t be surprised if the Sooners get off to a bit of a sluggish start offensively. They’re going to be amped up to begin the game and, besides, they are going up against a damn good defense in Clemson. But they’ll get it going. I don’t believe this is going to be as high-scoring a game as some might think. The Sooners’ defense have been really good all season about bending and not breaking. OU gets doubly tough when an opponent gets into the red zone. Clemson may mount some long drives, but that also opens the opportunity for Oklahoma to force the Tigers into an offensive mistake.