I got my Sports Illustrated cover prints for Christmas and it is still sinking in just how awesome this season has been. I couldn't be more excited getting to write a game preview for this type of game. This team is really good and continues to win even with big mistakes being made in all three phases. Obviously the margin of error is very small now as the top four teams in the nation battle to decide who will wear the crown. I do know that Clemson playing a clean game is going to be too much for the other teams to handle. The only question for me is will they put two clean games together?
How the Tigers are underdogs in this game is a bit baffling to me. Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the defense who allowed teams to make things closer than they should have been versus USCjr and UNC. The fatigue of ten straight weeks and some guys perhaps peeking at the next level led to much of the problems seen down the stretch. Clemson's ability to win despite playing below standard in many cases has been overlooked more than it should be, in my opinion. Meanwhile the Sooners took full advantage of the injuries which beset their chief rivals and were able to put up some huge offensive stats against the Big 12 defenses they faced. The chances are very strong that the Sooners will get a shock to the system against a fully rested Tiger defense tired of hearing about their slip ups.
Clemson offense versus Oklahoma defense: I was very worried about this last year heading into the Russell Athletic Bowl knowing Cole Stoudt would be leading the offense. Vegas made the Sooners nearly a touchdown favorite mostly due to that fact. However, a full bowl prep allowed Stoudt to get healthy and the Tigers reminded the nation that there is pretty good talent surrounding the quarterback in Tigertown. The Sooners had enough beef in the middle to slow the run game but were hopelessly outclassed on the perimeter. This time the Tigers bring all time great Deshaun Watson to the party with even more weaponry despite the unfortunate loss of stud Mike Williams. Nothing has stopped Clemson since the monsoon game other than Clemson's own turnovers or drops or penalties. Boston College loaded up on the run with their top ranked defense and Watson eventually settled in and torched them for over 400 yards. South Carolina and UNC put their safeties deep and tried to keep things in front of them. The Tigers simply ran the ball for 236 and 316 yards in those contests. Florida State came with the athletes to slow the Tigers on the perimeter and Watson attacked with Jordan Leggett over the middle along with his own deft running. What will Oklahoma try to do to slow down this monster? Can they afford to leave their secondary isolated on the guys who ran circles around them last year? Can they handle the Tiger running attack without bringing safety help? I have a feeling we will see a very aggressive approach from Oklahoma in hopes they can create a big play or two before Clemson burns them for an explosive play.
Texas clearly showed you can mash the Sooners up front if you have the physicality to do so. Texas didn't have anywhere near the Tigers' passing attack to scare the Sooners either. As long as Clemson doesn't allow Eric Striker to get loose on blitzes and avoids the drops and loose ball handling, the Sooners will be once again out of their element. All that talking they have been doing only helps assure this eventuality. Their time of seeing backup quarterbacks has come to an end. NOTE: The suspension word came down after the first draft of this. Clearly the loss of Cain is a blow considering he had emerged as the top deep threat on the team. Of course, the best game Clemson played all year was in this same stadium without Cain so I still feel good about Peake and the rest of the wideouts getting it done.
Clemson defense versus Oklahoma offense: Much like the UNC game, the Sooners are going to need their highly ranked offense to not flinch in this game. Baker Mayfield has helped the Sooners get over the hump so far thanks to being a very Johnny Football type player. Many of his highlights are plays where he is scrambling around before making a throw for a big play. Even still, Brent Venables is likely willing to take his chances with Mayfield and the Sooners skill and will focus the plan on stopping Perrine and Mixon in the run game. The Tigers did an admirable job slowing down UNC's three headed running attack and terrorizing Marquise Williams into erratic throws. That game was a great primer for this one as the Sooners are very similar to UNC offensively. Clemson will need to be on point against the jet sweep motion, two back run game that Syracuse and USCjr used with good effect because as the offensive scouting report showed, OU has that in its offense. Venables and staff have had tons of prep time for this and there is little doubt the focus will be there for a game of this magnitude.
I feel the game plan on defense will be similar to the one used against Notre Dame. Mack will shadow Sterling Shepard all over the field as Shepard has been by far their biggest weapon in the big games this season. Clemson's defensive line needs to dominate the suspect Sooner OL and punish Mayfield at every opportunity. As they say, everybody has a game plan until he gets punched in the mouth. As long as the Sooners have to pass to win, the Tigers will be in good shape.
Special Teams: Perhaps the most amazing thing about this season has been how the Tigers have won out despite being terrible at kickoff coverage, kick return, punting, and punt return. The Lakip forced fumble versus ND remains the only positive game changing play from kick game. Field goal kicking has been the one bright spot and we once again go into this game just hoping this phase doesn't sink the ship. Needless to say if Clemson can get any big positive here, victory should be assured. Clemson's disadvantages in field position throughout the season has been an overlooked stat in my opinion.
Overall: I feel confident here as I did going into the UNC game. I just feel a team has to be lights out up front on offense to really hope to consistently bother the Tiger defense. Notre Dame worried me as their OL is pretty elite and even they struggled to block Clemson, especially the first three quarters. Clemson has won just about every type of game this year from defensive grinds to offensive shootouts. We have the best quarterback in the nation who isn't going to allow this team to lose as long as he is under center. In the end, Clemson is more physical on both lines and that will win the day as long as Clemson takes care of the ball.
Clemson 42 Oklahoma 28