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Orange Bowl Preview: Inside Look At The No. 1 Tigers

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What To Expect Out Of Clemson

When the College Football semifinals finally arrive on New Year’s Day, there’s no question that the highlight game of the day will be when the No. 1 Clemson Tigers and No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners square off. Both teams have a potent offense while also locking down on the defensive side of the ball.

Oklahoma’s riding a hot streak ever since falling to Texas at the beginning of October, but Clemson is plenty capable of ruining the Sooners’ happy parade. The Tigers are undefeated, and have done most of their damage against very good teams. Out of Clemson’s 13 wins, four of them have come against teams that finished the year with at least ten victories. On top of that, the Tigers have three other wins over teams that have a winning record.

Here’s a preview of what the Sooners will see out of Clemson at the end of the month:

Offense

The Tigers have put on a clinic just about every time they touched the ball this season, and are ranked No. 12 in the nation in total offense with an average of 510.6 yards per game. Not only are they putting up a plethora of yardage, but the Tigers are doing it with a very balanced attack.

Clemson ranks in the top 25 in both rushing and passing offense, and have scored exactly 30 rushing touchdowns and 30 passing touchdowns. In fact, there were seven games this season where the Tigers rushed for 200 yards and passed for 200 yards in the same game.

Here’s a position breakdown of the offense:

Quarterback

If you’re a college football fan, then there’s no doubt you know a lot about Clemson’s star quarterback DeShaun Watson. The sophomore is one of the nation’s best players, and he finished third in the Heisman voting after throwing for 3,512 yards and 30 touchdowns and rushing for 887 yards and 11 more scores. Plain and simple, Watson is a bonafide playmaker.

Just like the Sooners’ quarterback, Watson can extend plays with his legs, and is able to make canny decisions whenever the pocket is closing in on him. Oklahoma pass rushers Eric Striker, Devonta Bond and Charles Tapper will try and make life difficult for Watson, but it’ll be no easy task for the OU defense to completely shut him down.

While he’s mostly on the money, Watson does have 11 interceptions on his resume which shows he’s not completely invincible. Against Louisville, Boston College and Wake Forest, Watson had a combined six interceptions compared to eight touchdown passes.

Oklahoma’s defense will be looking to force turnovers throughout the game, and that won’t be an unfamiliar task for that group. The Sooners rank No. 8 in the nation in interceptions with 19, and also have six fumble recoveries. OU’s defense will also have motivation on its side, seeing there’s been plenty of criticism on the subject of the Sooners not playing against a starting caliber quarterback during the final stretch of their season. Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State were all without its normal starter behind center, but Oklahoma has been fairly dominant regardless of whom they’ve faced.

That being said, Watson is a whole other animal, and has a 17-1 record as Clemson’s starting quarterback and a 16-0 record when he finishes the game healthy. If Mike Stoops can dial up a defensive game plan that can rattle Watson, it would be one of his most impressive performances as a coordinator.

Running Back

All-ACC running back Wayne Gallman is another big-time playmaker on the Tigers’ offense, and has touchdowns in eight different games this season. In all, Gallman has 10 rushing touchdowns and one receiving score, to go with his 1,332 rushing yards.

The only ACC running back to outperform Gallman was FSU’s Dalvin Cook, and that’s saying a lot. He’s on the verge of breaking Clemson’s all-time rushing record, and has eight 100-yard rushing games this season. Gallman’s has shown lately he’s capable of catching the ball out of the backfield, and had four receptions for 68 yards in the ACC Championship Game.

Senior Zac Brooks is the Tigers’ backup running back, but the most carries he’s had in a game this season has been seven, and only has five receptions. He does have five total touchdowns, but most of the damage done out of the Clemson backfield will be courtesy of Mr. Gallman.

Receivers

All OU fans probably remember the name Artavis Scott. If you don’t, he was the receiver who took it 65-yards to the house on the first offensive play for Clemson in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl. Scott’s  been back to dominating opposing secondarys again this year with 84 catches for 805 yards and five touchdowns.

Scott and his quarterback Watson have a tremendous chemistry, and it’ll be interesting to see if Oklahoma decides to defend him with Ahmad Thomas or Zach Sanchez. Against Baylor, the defensive coaching staff elected to have Thomas guard star receiver Corey Coleman throughout most of the game and the receiver was virtually a non-factor.

Watson’s second favorite option on the outside is either senior Charone Peake or freshman Deon Cain. Peake has 40 receptions for 563 yards, but Cain has come on strong as of late as a prime target. He has 34 catches for 572 yards, but is currently riding a five game touchdown streak.

Clemson also uses a tight end, and second-team All-American Jordan Leggett has been a reliable target all season long with a reception in every game, and 34 total on the season to go with seven touchdowns. Leggett’s best game of the season came against Florida State, where the junior totaled six receptions for 101 yards.

Offensive Line

No one expected it before the season, but Clemson’s offensive line has been very solid all season long, despite returning just one starter from last year’s unit. Turns out, that lone returning starter (center Ryan Norton) got hurt, but is expected to be able to play in the Orange Bowl.  

The Tigers’ offensive line ranks No. 14 in the nation in fewest sacks allowed, and haven’t given up a sack since the Florida State game at the beginning of November. The offensive line can also grind it out with their run blocking, and rank No. 17 in the country in rushing yards with 222.2 per game.

All five starters on the line made an All-ACC team, and highlighting the first team is guard Eric Mac Lain. Center Jay Guillermo made the second team, and was the ACC offensive lineman of the week three different times. True freshman tackle Mitch Hyatt along with tackle Joe Gore and guard Tyrone Crowder made the All-ACC third team.

Defense

Despite losing eight players from last year’s No. 1 ranked defense, the Tigers and defensive coordinator Brent Venables have recovered nicely and put together a group that ranks No. 7 in the nation this year, allowing 295.7 yards per game. The Tigers are No. 18 in the nation in scoring defense (20.2), and are a top-five team when it comes to tackles for loss. Clemson has 32 TFL in the last four games, not to mention the 12 sacks as well.

Defensive line

While Oklahoma has a loaded defensive line that features the likes of Eric Striker and Charles Tapper, the Clemson front has a group of guys that might just be the strength of the team. Defensive end Shaq Lawson earned first team All-American status this season, and cleared the air earlier this month that he’d be heading to the NFL once the playoffs are over. Lawson was dominant throughout the entire season, accumulating 22.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and 78 total tackles.

At the other defensive end slot is Kevin Dodd, who has 8.5 sacks on the year including 74 tackles. Both Dodd and Lawson will provide a lethal pass rush for the Tigers, and OU tackles Orlando Brown and Dru Samia will need to be on their toes.

As for the interior of the Clemson front, Carlos Watkins leads the way with 61 tackles this season, and was named to the All-ACC first team. Both D.J. Reader and Scott Pagano are also impactful lineman in the trenches, and Reader especially is a solid run stopper. True freshman Christian Wilkins has 72 tackles despite only starting only one game.

OU will need to control the trenches in order to have an impactful offense, but that may not be an easy thing to do against a defensive front that ranks No. 4 in the nation in adjusted line yards and No. 14 in adjusted sack rate, according to SB Nation.

Linebackers

The Tigers have a stellar duo of linebackers in B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware. Most OU fans remember Boulware, who had a pick-six in the Russell Athletic Bowl last season, and has gone on to accumulate 121 tackles and be named to the All-ACC first team this year.

Goodson is another experienced guy, and has 127 total stops on the year. He has good hands and is keen to snagging key interceptions in big games. Travis Blanks is the third starter and is a solid presence in the defense, but he takes a clear backseat to both Boulware and Goodson.

Secondary

Boy oh boy, it’ll be a treat to see Oklahoma’s prolific Air-Raid offense square off with a Clemson secondary that ranks as one of the best in the nation. Safey Jayron Kearse made many All-American lists, and finished the regular season with 74 tackles and was tremendous in coverage by using his 6’5” height to his advantage.

Also finding his name on All-American lists was cornerback MacKensie Alexander, who allowed just 11 completions and no touchdowns to the receivers he’s been assigned to throughout the season. Alexander basically has an island named after him, and is one of the main reasons why Clemson’s secondary ranks No. 1 in the nation in pass completion defense, by allowing opponents to complete only 46.1 percent of pass attempts.

Cordrea Tankersley lines up at the other cornerback spot, and has five interceptions on the year to go with 14 passes defended. It’ll be interesting to see who lines up to guard OU’s Sterling Shepard, because if it’s Alexander, there’s a good chance we see a lot of production from the likes of Dede Westbrook or Durron Neal, because most offensive coordinators have elected to not even throw Alexander’s way.

T.J. Green is another starting safety for the Tigers, and has 101 tackles to his name. Adrian Baker is another pivotal player in the secondary when Clemson comes out in its nickel package. The Tigers are hoping their starters stay healthy, because the drop off between the big boys and the reserves is very noticeable.

This matchup should be a good one, so be sure to tune in at 3 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.

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