Oklahoma, Clemson took different paths to playoff


By Paul Newberry - AP National Writer



Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, left and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney shake hands in front of the trophy during the coaches press conference Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Clemson is scheduled to play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game on New Year's Eve. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)


Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney speaks during the coaches press conference Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Clemson is scheduled to play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game on New Year's Eve. Swinney spoke about three of his players who will not play for the rest of the season, saying it was for violation of team rules. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)


Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops speaks during the coaches press conference Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Clemson is scheduled to play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game on New Year's Eve. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)


No. 4 Oklahoma (11-1) vs. No. 1 Clemson (13-0) at Miami Gardens, Florida, Thursday, 4 p.m. EST (ESPN)

By The Associated Press

Line: Oklahoma by 4.

Series record: Tied 2-2.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

Clemson is seeking its first national title since 1981 and trying to become the first team in FBS history to finish 15-0. None of that happens unless the Tigers can get past Oklahoma, a team they routed 40-6 last season in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The Sooners are perhaps the hottest team in the country — averaging 52 points over their last seven games — and eager to show just how far they’ve come since their last bowl appearance.

KEY MATCHUP

Oklahoma WR Sterling Shepard vs. Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander. Last year, these two got into quite a verbal tussle during pre-game warmups before the bowl. Alexander got the best of things on the field, holding Shepard to one reception. In better health and having toned down his trash-talking, Shepard is looking to bounce back against one of the nation’s top cornerbacks.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Oklahoma: QB Baker Mayfield. A former walk-on, the swaggering transfer from Texas Tech won the starting job after sitting out a season and turned in some staggering numbers: 68.6 completions, 3,389 yards, 35 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He reminds some of former Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel with the ability to improvise and bail out plays with his legs.

Clemson: QB Deshaun Watson. The other half of this much-anticipated quarterback duel, Watson was a Heisman Trophy finalist who did it all for the Tigers. He completed 69.5 percent of his throws for 3,512 yards and 30 touchdowns, with just 11 picks. He also is the Tigers’ second-leading rusher with 887 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, and leads the team with 11 TDs.

FACTS & FIGURES

Oklahoma has averaged 52 points a game since losing to Texas in the Red River Showdown. … Dabo Swinney went 19-15 in his first three seasons as Clemson’s coach, but he’s 55-11 since then. … The Sooners have won seven Associated Press national championships, the most recent in 2000. Only Alabama (nine) and Notre Dame (eight) have won more. … Samaje Perine is Oklahoma’s top rusher with 1,291 yards and 15, while Wayne Gallman leads Clemson on the ground with 1,332 yards and 10 TDs. … The Tigers are undefeated despite a minus-2 turnover margin. The Sooners are plus-10. … Clemson suspended three players for violating team rules, including speedy WR Deon Cain, who led the team with an average of 17.1 yards per catch. Still, the Tigers have eight other players with double-figure receptions. … Clemson K Greg Huegel missed five extra points.

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AP College Football website: http://www.collegefootball.ap.org

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — 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.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry. AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org

Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, left and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney shake hands in front of the trophy during the coaches press conference Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Clemson is scheduled to play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game on New Year’s Eve. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)
http://wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/web1_107880889-034eb1b168c64c6fbc7cc67cb76410fb1.jpgOklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, left and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney shake hands in front of the trophy during the coaches press conference Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Clemson is scheduled to play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game on New Year’s Eve. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney speaks during the coaches press conference Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Clemson is scheduled to play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game on New Year’s Eve. Swinney spoke about three of his players who will not play for the rest of the season, saying it was for violation of team rules. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)
http://wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/web1_107880889-64f5be15146841e09ea4cdd6b164b10f1.jpgClemson head coach Dabo Swinney speaks during the coaches press conference Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Clemson is scheduled to play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game on New Year’s Eve. Swinney spoke about three of his players who will not play for the rest of the season, saying it was for violation of team rules. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)

Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops speaks during the coaches press conference Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Clemson is scheduled to play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game on New Year’s Eve. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)
http://wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/web1_107880889-3d8ef240b750485e904cb08d6aa9006f1.jpgOklahoma head coach Bob Stoops speaks during the coaches press conference Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Clemson is scheduled to play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game on New Year’s Eve. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)

By Paul Newberry

AP National Writer

No. 4 Oklahoma (11-1) vs. No. 1 Clemson (13-0) at Miami Gardens, Florida, Thursday, 4 p.m. EST (ESPN)

By The Associated Press

Line: Oklahoma by 4.

Series record: Tied 2-2.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

Clemson is seeking its first national title since 1981 and trying to become the first team in FBS history to finish 15-0. None of that happens unless the Tigers can get past Oklahoma, a team they routed 40-6 last season in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The Sooners are perhaps the hottest team in the country — averaging 52 points over their last seven games — and eager to show just how far they’ve come since their last bowl appearance.

KEY MATCHUP

Oklahoma WR Sterling Shepard vs. Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander. Last year, these two got into quite a verbal tussle during pre-game warmups before the bowl. Alexander got the best of things on the field, holding Shepard to one reception. In better health and having toned down his trash-talking, Shepard is looking to bounce back against one of the nation’s top cornerbacks.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Oklahoma: QB Baker Mayfield. A former walk-on, the swaggering transfer from Texas Tech won the starting job after sitting out a season and turned in some staggering numbers: 68.6 completions, 3,389 yards, 35 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He reminds some of former Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel with the ability to improvise and bail out plays with his legs.

Clemson: QB Deshaun Watson. The other half of this much-anticipated quarterback duel, Watson was a Heisman Trophy finalist who did it all for the Tigers. He completed 69.5 percent of his throws for 3,512 yards and 30 touchdowns, with just 11 picks. He also is the Tigers’ second-leading rusher with 887 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, and leads the team with 11 TDs.

FACTS & FIGURES

Oklahoma has averaged 52 points a game since losing to Texas in the Red River Showdown. … Dabo Swinney went 19-15 in his first three seasons as Clemson’s coach, but he’s 55-11 since then. … The Sooners have won seven Associated Press national championships, the most recent in 2000. Only Alabama (nine) and Notre Dame (eight) have won more. … Samaje Perine is Oklahoma’s top rusher with 1,291 yards and 15, while Wayne Gallman leads Clemson on the ground with 1,332 yards and 10 TDs. … The Tigers are undefeated despite a minus-2 turnover margin. The Sooners are plus-10. … Clemson suspended three players for violating team rules, including speedy WR Deon Cain, who led the team with an average of 17.1 yards per catch. Still, the Tigers have eight other players with double-figure receptions. … Clemson K Greg Huegel missed five extra points.

___

AP College Football website: http://www.collegefootball.ap.org

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