The top-ranked Clemson Tigers are on their way to the national championship game following a resounding statement against the No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners, notching a 37-17 Orange Bowl win on Thursday night. Here are four thoughts from the College Football Playoff semifinal:
1. Clemson is the nation’s No. 1 team for a reason
There were warning signs down the stretch for Dabo Swinney’s team. After routing Miami in one of the season’s greatest shows of force and taking down Florida State in the ACC’s regular-season heavyweight bout, Syracuse and South Carolina provided closer-than-expected results. North Carolina was a botched call away from playing for a tie on its final possession in the conference title game. The Tigers kept winning, but lesser teams were hanging around.
That led to the No. 1 team entering the College Football Playoff as the underdog to Big 12 champion Oklahoma, which closed its season with three consecutive wins over ranked opponents, including a 35-point drubbing of in-state rival Oklahoma State. The Sooners were cruising.
When Oklahoma drove down the field for a touchdown on its opening drive, there was a sense of confirmation. Then Clemson clamped down, and over the course of the final 56 minutes outscored the Sooners 37-10 — the second half was a lopsided affair as the Tigers rattled off 21 straight points. As Swinney made sure to point out after the game, his program is now 51-0 when leading after three quarters and there was never any doubt this time around, either.
This was the handiwork of a No. 1 team.
There were blunders along the way — Oklahoma’s opening drive, redzone inefficiency in the first half, Deshaun Watson’s interception to cap the first 30 minutes of play — but as the sample size grew larger on Thursday night, there was little question who was No. 1 and who was No. 4. If three top-10 wins were not enough to solidify Clemson’s place in the national championship picture, the fourth was more than enough proof.
The Tigers are not an upstart. They are a national powerhouse with 10 or more wins in each of the past five seasons, and now they will play for their first national since 1981.
2. A touted quarterback matchup turned into a running game exhibition
The Deshaun Watson vs. Baker Mayfield was always going to be too simplistic for a game of this magnitude. There were too many pieces to the puzzle, and while quality quarterback play from Heisman candidates is irreplaceable, to reduce a national semifinal to two players’ performances was never going to work. In fact, Mayfield owned better individual passing numbers in the Orange Bowl.
Clemson answered the suspension of No. 2 receiver Deon Cain (582 yards, five touchdowns) — meaning Watson was working without two of his top three targets, considering the season-long injury of Mike Williams — by turning to its ground game. First Watson on read-option keepers, then driving home the message with standout running back Wayne Gallman.
Watson finished with 145 rushing yards and a score, while Gallman capped off the effort with 150 yards and two touchdowns, setting the school’s single-season record with 1,482 yards.
The Tigers’ 312 rushing yards were the fourth-highest total allowed by Bob Stoops’ program since the start of the 2010 season. The Sooners entered the game ranked sixth in efficiency against the run this season — Watson and Gallman simply ignored that statistic.
Though the passing game gets the headlines, the Tigers have quietly posted a top-20 rushing season behind its versatile backfield, thanks in large part to a completely retooled offensive line that features five new starters (including a stud true freshman) and, somehow, has not missed a beat.
If Clemson plays without Cain in the national title game, it will likely need a similar effort against the vaunted defenses of Alabama or Michigan State.
3. Clemson dealt with Shaq Lawson’s first-quarter departure in style
Losing an All-American and potential first-round draft pick could wreak havoc on a defense.
Junior defensive end Shaq Lawson, the nation’s most disruptive defensive player in 2015 with 23.5 tackles for loss, left the semifinal clash early after injuring his left knee. The Tigers’ driving defensive force originally injured the knee on Oklahoma’s opening series, but did not exit the game until sacking Mayfield on the Sooners’ second drive of the game. He spent the rest of the game offering encouragement from the sideline.
After scoring on its opening drive — with Lawson still in the game — the Sooners closed the game by scoring just 10 points on their final 11 drives. Again: That’s a bona fide juggernaut averaging fewer than one point per possession against a defense playing without one of its two best players (maybe the best depending on your evaluation of star cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who excelled once again against Oklahoma).
The Tigers held three of their four ranked opponents to 22 or fewer points this season. Sometimes, a unit just gets the job done.
4. Brent Venables makes his case for country’s top defensive coordinator
Venables had his hands full with his former team. Oklahoma featured a Heisman candidate at quarterback, a loaded running back corps and receivers galore, all of which culimnated in the regular season’s No. 2 scoring offense at 45.8 points per game. The difficulty level was compounded by the loss of Lawson.
The results can be found above: Holding the loaded Sooners, perhaps the best team in college football down the stretch, to just 17 points adds more evidence to Venables’ resume. He’s completely turned around a once-upon-a-time hapless defensive unit into one of the nation’s best over the past few seasons — and even after losing the likes of All-American Vic Beasley and his entire starting defensive line, Venables produced a top-20 scoring defense that ranked sixth in efficiency.
Keep in mind: Venables inherited a Tigers defense that capped its 2011 season giving up 70 points to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Two Orange Bowl trips later, the Tigers have come a long way (S&P+ defensive efficiency, national ranking):
The Clemson program has a lot of things going for it. That’s how it landed in the title game.
Brent Venables might be near the very top of the list, though.