Oklahoma, Clemson took different paths to College Football Playoff
MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. — From a protest in the spring to travel woes in the fall, Oklahoma coped with plenty of distractions on its way to the Orange Bowl.
Clemson might ask for a few pointers.
The top-ranked Tigers (13-0) were dealing with the suspension of three players for violating unspecified team rules as they prepared to face the No. 4 Sooners (11-1) in the national semifinal game.
While none were starters, it was still an unwanted annoyance on the eve of Thursday's contest in balmy south Florida.
Oklahoma has dealt with its own issues, actually going all the way back to a meeting between these same teams more than a year ago in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Clemson blew out the Sooners 40-6, raising doubts about the direction of the program under longtime coach Bob Stoops.
Well, look where the Sooners are now — two victories away from their first national title since 2000.
"We've got a strong program," Stoops said Wednesday. "It wasn't nearly as weak as people wanted to say it was a year ago."
Since then, Oklahoma has grown even stronger.
When a racist video shot by members of a campus fraternity went viral during spring practice, the Sooners shut down workouts for several days, held a series of emotionally charged meetings, and wound up marching arm-in-arm in a show of solidarity.
Their bond grew even tighter after an upset loss to rival Texas, followed the next week by a plane issue that kept them stranded at the Oklahoma City airport more than eight hours trying to get to a game at Kansas State.
"We had one conference room," Stoops remembered. "The offense had a meeting in there to review practice that day, and then defense took their turn in there to watch practice. Then it became the music room. So there were probably 40 of them in there, blaring music and chanting all the words and jumping up and down. I came in with two buckets of chicken, and it went crazy."
The Sooners haven't lost since, averaging 52 points over their last seven games.
"It's been fun," said Baker Mayfield, who emerged as one of the nation's top quarterbacks after transferring from Texas Tech. "It's been ups and downs, a lot of adversity throughout the beginning of the year. I've enjoyed the ride."
Clemson hasn't lost all season, coming into the College Football Playoff as the nation's only undefeated FBS team.
Led by Heisman finalist Deshaun Watkins, the Tigers are playing with a huge amount of confidence. Coach Dabo Swinney doesn't expect that to change, even after the suspension of receiver Deon Cain, kicker Ammon Lakip and tight end Jay Jay McCullough.
"It doesn't affect our team. Y'all may think it does, but it doesn't," Swinney told reporters at his final news conference before the game. "There's consequences for your actions, and we just always reinforce that and instill that in our program and always will. It doesn't matter who they are or how big the game is. If you don't do what's right, you ain't playing."
Here are some things to watch for when Clemson meets Oklahoma at Sun Life Stadium:
QUARTERBACK DUEL: Watkins and Mayfield are putting up video game-like numbers. The Clemson star has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 3,512 yards and 30 touchdowns, while running for 887 yards and another 11 TDs. Mayfield has passed for 3,389 yards and 35 touchdowns, with just five interceptions, and he's also a threat to run (420 yards, seven TDs). One Clemson defender described him as "Manzielesque," a nod to 2012 Heisman winner Johnny Manziel.
SHAKY DEFENSES: Both teams are giving up more than 20 points a game, hardly following the mantra that defense wins championships. Clemson looked especially vulnerable in its last two games, holding off South Carolina 37-32 and beating North Carolina 45-37 in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. Oklahoma is outside the top 20 in all four major defensive categories. The key for both teams is keeping the quarterback confined to the pocket. If Watkins and Mayfield are able to consistently get outside, the scoreboard is going to look like a calculator.
RAISING ANOTHER CAIN: The suspension of Cain cost the Tigers one of their best deep threats. He averaged a team-leading 17.1 yards per catch, which won't be easy to replace. Starter Charone Peake will have to take more snaps, while Trevion Thompson steps into the backup role. He's had only 10 catches for 115 yards.
OVERLOOKED BACKS: The high-flying quarterbacks get most of the attention, but both teams have strong running games. Samaje Perine (1,291 yards, 15 TDs) and Joe Mixon (749 yards, seven TDs) are quite a 1-2 punch for the Sooners. Clemson counters with Wayne Gallman, who has rushed for 1,332 yards and 10 scores.
WAR OF WORDS: Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard got into some serious jawing with Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander before last year's Russell Athletic Bowl. Alexander wound up getting the last laugh, holding Shepard to one reception. Having toned down his act and in much better health, Shepard said there won't be a repeat of the pre-game foolishness. He's more concerned with catching more passes.