It has been a pretty darn good run for the football team these last few seasons. Thankfully the biggest smudge on the resume the last few years was erased in late November when the Tigers took the chickens behind the woodshed. Outside of that infamous streak, the Tigers have done some amazing things on the gridiron since 2011. Part of that run has included major league bowl victories over perennial powers LSU and Ohio State. I shuddered once again at the talent LSU had on display in Atlanta when I saw Jeremy Hill run all over Denver the other night. Odell Beckham has ripped it up for the Giants and Zack Mettenburger had taken over for the Titans prior to injury. These were just the guys on the offensive side of the ball in Atlanta that night who played second fiddle to a loaded defense with NFL guys all over the place.
Meanwhile, Ohio State has lost a total of three games in three years to this point, with one of those being to the Tigers in Miami in the Orange Bowl. One of the biggest things about the Danny Ford era was Clemson fans had no reason to fear anyone in a one-off football matchup and those days have returned. This time it is the Oklahoma Sooners who are a national brand with national championship pedigree.
Clemson offense versus Oklahoma defense:
Once again all eyes are on this matchup as Clemson rolls out new offensive coordinators in Tony Elliot and Jeff Scott as well as new QB coach Brandon Streeter. The trio has had the task of figuring out how to get the Tiger offense effective with Cole Stoudt at the controls. All Tiger fans are well aware of Stoudt's struggles this season, especially since putting up a decent performance in Winston-Salem against Wake. However, now the Tigers are playing with some house money having beaten USCjr and putting Deshaun Watson on the shelf with knee surgery. There isn't the pressure to get the monkey off the team's back and regain momentum like there was the last few seasons. The Tigers are underdogs and very few of the national talking heads are really giving the team a shot without #4 under center. This is a good position for Cole to be in as he tries to end his career on a positive note.
The bad news in this game is Oklahoma's biggest weakness is against the pass and Clemson is going to need to lean on the run game to give Cole a chance to pull off a victory. Sure, Wayne Gallman and Artavis Scott had their way running the ball against the chickens, but that was when Watson was behind center and the Gamecocks played with a lot of 2 deep safety looks. Most everyone has rolled a safety up against Stoudt without fear of getting burned over the top and the run game has largely struggled with him at the helm. The Sooners will undoubtedly bring a very aggressive gameplan into this game in hopes of rattling Stoudt into the turnovers that have plagued him against major opponents.
It will be up to the offensive line to build on their best performance of the year last month and hold its own on the line of scrimmage. It will be particularly important to keep athletic Sooner LB Eric Striker off of Cole as he was one of the major reasons Alabama struggled against the Sooners last year in the Sugar Bowl. Striker comes in with 7.5 sacks for the season. However, if the Tigers can just protect the ball and allow the defense to set the tone while taking advantage of whatever field position opportunities arise, they will have every chance to win as they did against Louisville, BC, and others with Cole playing QB.
Clemson defense versus Oklahoma offense:
It has been a banner year for the Clemson defense. After many years of playing second fiddle to the high octane HUNH attack of Chad Morris, Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, Corey Crawford, Deshawn Williams, Garry Peters, Robert Smith, Stephone Anthony, and Tony Steward have put their stamps as seniors on the program and elevated the unit to the #1 group in the country.
Now, as Kraken pointed out, the final exam comes in the form of the very capable Oklahoma offense with all of its weaponry at its disposal. I just hope the offense plays well enough that the defense isn't hung out to dry like it was in Atlanta or in the fourth quarter in Athens.
The Sooners are set to put mercurial quarterback Trevor Knight back under center in Orlando. Knight has shown he can look like an All American at times like he did in the Sugar Bowl last year or this year against Iowa State when he threw for 230 and 3 TDs while running for 146 and 3 more scores. Knight is a true duel threat, especially when he's on his game, and it will be important for the defense to make him one dimensional. Behind Knight will be electric freshman running back Samaje Perine who comes in with 1579 yards and 6.6 yards per carry. Perine is a load at 243 pounds and is the most physical back the Tigers will have seen since Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb. If the Tigers can shut the Sooner run game down, or at least slow it to 150 yards or less, that would be a major feather in the cap and in my opinion place this unit among the top three in Clemson history. For the greatness of the 1990 defense, it is hard to say it faced an offense anything like what UGA brought or what Oklahoma is bringing. It should be fun to watch.
Once again, the super unknown is how this part of the game will shake out. Clemson still has just one plus return play all year in either punt or kick return. While the punting game has been solid, the field goal unit has had its ups and downs as we all know. Lakip hasn't been needed for a big kick for a few games and came up short on his one try against the chickens. He is more important when the Tigers are playing with Stoudt as the unit just hasn't been explosive with him at the controls. Finishing with points in the red zone will be vital in this game.
Meanwhile, the Sooners are no doubt still reeling from the memory of giving up a 92-yard punt return to send the Bedlam game into overtime where Oklahoma State would steal the victory. This is certainly an area where the game can swing and it is up to the Tigers to not blink first.
As I said earlier, I feel this is a "house money" game and the Tigers should play loose. The team is an underdog for the first time in a while and I personally like being in that position. Cole Stoudt has already been to the bottom and can either stay there or pick himself up and play like a man. I have a feeling he'll play much better than he has and give the Tigers a chance to win. Let's roll.