The Oklahoma Sooners will close out a disappointing season that began with high hopes Monday night in the Russell Athletic Bowl against Clemson. Here's a quick preview of the game.
Three questions for Oklahoma:
1. Will the Sooners be completely healthy?
Sure, quarterback Trevor Knight has been cleared to practice, running back Samaje Perine suffered just a sprained ankle in Bedlam and wide receiver Sterling Shepard hasn't played more than a play in any game since October. But if the Sooners want to win this bowl game, they'll need all three of those players back on offense and at full strength. The OU passing game was nonexistent with Cody Thomas at quarterback and Shepard out of action and in Bedlam, the offense completely dried up once Perine left the game with the sprained ankle. All signs point to all three being ready for the bowl game, but until they're on the field and playing, it's hard to know for sure, especially given the severity of Knight's injury and Shepard's repeated attempts to play and then tapping out.
2. Can Oklahoma move the ball against the Clemson defense?
The Clemson defense, under former OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables, is one of the stingiest units in the country. The Tigers are first in total defense, third in passing defense and seventh in scoring defense, as well as 15th in run defense. Venables has built a great defense thanks to a dominant defensive line, a veteran linebacker group and an aggressive secondary. If the answer to the question above is no, then the Sooners are going to have a difficult time doing anything on offense. If Knight, Perine and Shepard are all healthy, then Oklahoma at least has a good chance to move the ball and make the game more exciting. At least in that scenario, the Sooners have some semblance of a passing game to keep the Tigers from loading the box against the run.
3. Will the Sooners' defense be able to shut down the Clemson offense?
Clemson's offense has been up and down all season, but with freshman quarterback DeShaun Watson missing the game due to a torn ACL, the Tigers will look more on the down side than the up side. Cole Stoudt has been serviceable at quarterback this year, but he lacks Watson's talent and play-making ability. The Clemson run game is not something to be terrified of and the Tigers just lost offensive coordinator Chad Morris to SMU. The OU defense has been a mess this season, but this is one last opportunity to go into the offseason on a high note and build toward next year. If the Sooners are able to put pressure on Stoudt and bottle up the run game, this one could turn into a grinding, defensive battle very quickly.
Three key players for Clemson:
1. DE Vic Beasley- 29 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks
Beasley has been arguably the best defensive lineman in college football for two years and has been named to just about everyone's All-American team. Beasley's size and speed make him the perfect edge rusher, but it's risky to double him thanks to how good the rest of the Clemson defensive line is. Beasley is going to be the best player the OU defensive line has faced all season and will be a huge test for tackles Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams.
2. WR Artavis Scott- 68 receptions, 851 yards, seven touchdowns
Scott is just a freshman, but he's a speedster and his performance this season landed him on several freshman All-American teams. Scott was particularly big in the season finale against South Carolina, where he caught seven passes for 185 yards and a touchdown. Oklahoma has had problems with speed on the outside this season, so keeping Scott under wraps will be a team effort in the secondary.
3. RB Wayne Gallman- 142 carries, 714 yards, four touchdowns
Gallman was merely a part of the running back rotation at the beginning of the season, but when Adam Choice went down with an injury, Gallman stepped up and carried the load for the Clemson run game, rushing for 516 yards and three touchdowns over the final five games of the season. With Scott and Mike Williams on the outside, the Sooners can't simply load up on the run. They'll have to stop Gallman primarily with the front seven.
Key matchup: Clemson front seven vs. Oklahoma offensive line
The Sooners have faced some good defenses this year, but Clemson boasts the best in the country, so Oklahoma won't be running for 500 yards in this one. The offensive line is going to be key in keeping Trevor Knight upright, while also opening up holes for the running backs to run through. Even though there have been lapses in their play this year, this massive offensive line has been excellent this season. For those leaving after this game, going out with one final big performance against a very good defense would be the perfect ending to their season and careers.
Prediction: Oklahoma 27, Clemson 14