College Football Playoff Matchup Breakdown, 1) Clemson vs. 4) Oklahoma

College Football Playoff Matchup Breakdown


Orange Bowl, December 31

1) Clemson vs. 4) Oklahoma


Quarterback: Deshaun Watson or Baker Mayfield?

In his second season, Deshaun Watson put together one of the best seasons possible for a high-profile quarterback who flies under the radar. With 41 total touchdowns and over 4,000 total yards accumulated, Watson received little Heisman buzz or fanfare. His team certainly garnered lots of accolades, but he wasn’t front and center like one would expect.

The opposite seemed to occur at Oklahoma with Baker Mayfield. In his first season as the Sooners’ quarterback, Mayfield was tremendous and took control of the storyline surrounding his team. He bolted into the Heisman conversation thanks to his 35-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. And the conversation became about Mayfield rather than about Oklahoma.

Watson’s rushing ability gives him an added dimension, but he can’t match up with Mayfield’s force of character and the influence the latter has had on his teammates. Watson may end up winning the Heisman Trophy over Mayfield (and everyone else), but it never once felt like Watson was the more impactful player this season.

Selection – Mayfield (OU)


Running back: Wayne Gallman or Semaje Perine?

If Watson’s performance this year was understated, the job done by Wayne Gallman has been even more overlooked. He’s not a threat in the passing game, but no other running back on the Clemson roster had more than 42 carries this year. Gallman carried the ball 243 times, averaging an insane 5.5 yards per rush.

The comparison isn’t perfect because Semaje Perine didn’t have the same every-down role for his team. While Perine still garnered over 200 carries, Joe Mixon also had over 100 carries for the Sooners this year. However, in that workload, Perine almost reached the same yardage total as Gallman. The former averaged 6.1 yards per carry and registered 15 touchdowns on the ground.

While Gallman was more consistent throughout the year, Perine was more explosive, breaking off 40+ yard runs in four of his final six games. Gallman only did so once all season.

Selection – Perine (OU)


Wide Receiving Corps?

Sterling Shepard is the best receiver on either team in this game. The rest of the OU pass catchers leave something to be desired though. Shepard led the team in catches (79), yards (1,201) and touchdowns (11). No other Sooner caught more than 42 balls or reached 700 yards for the season.

On Clemson’s side, Artavis Scott led the way but it was a team effort. Scott actually caught more balls than Shepard but made up a smaller percentage of his team’s receptions. Scott also wasn’t the big-play threat of some of his teammates. Four different players caught at least five touchdowns and collected at least 440 yards. Scott’s 9.6 yards per catch was the lowest figure of the team’s top six pass catchers.

If defenses were adept enough to take away a team’s top option, Oklahoma may be in trouble, but we’ve seen all year that the Sooners can find ways to get Shepard the ball. Clemson doesn’t have anyone defenses need to plan around or fear.

Selection – Oklahoma


Offensive Line?

According to analytics at Football Outsiders, the Clemson Tigers had the ninth-best offensive line this year based on adjusted line yards. Clemson was even better by adjusted sack rate, coming in fourth in the country. Compare that to Oklahoma. The Sooners were nearly as good, ranking in the top 25, in ALY but fell horribly far behind based on sack rate. OU was outside the top 100 nationally in that category.

Selection – Clemson


Defensive Line?

On the defensive front, Clemson once again rated very well in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards stat. The Tigers were fourth in the country overall and still in the top 15 based on sack rate. In fact, unadjusted for opponent, Clemson had the number one sack rate in football at 11.5 percent.

As with the o-line, Oklahoma falls behind on the d-line as well. The Sooners were solid overall, ranking 12th in ALY but barely rated inside the top 50 in adjust sack rate and had an unadjusted rate of just 6.1 percent.

Selection – Clemson


Total Defense?

Based on the numbers, Clemson had one of the preeminent defenses in the country this year. It finished seventh in total defense and passing defense while allowing just 20.2 points per game. In important scenarios, the Tigers were especially fearsome, finishing second in third-down conversion defense and fifth in first-down defense. The red zone was the one place Clemson struggled, allowing scores on 82.9 percent of possessions.

With the exception of red zone defense, Oklahoma was a notch below pretty much across the board. However, based on the eye test, it’s easy to see Oklahoma played more potent opposing offenses in the Big 12 than what Clemson faced week to week. Clemson also was much better earlier in the year and appeared to be slipping from that height as the season neared its conclusion. Perhaps so much time off between the ACC title game and the playoff semifinal will allow it to get back to that previous level.

Selection – Clemson


Special Teams?

Neither club altered field position nor gained much of an edge through the return game. Clemson was particularly poor returning punts. It was also pretty poor in its own punting game, whereas Oklahoma made up ground in the punting game, averaging more than 41 net yards per boot. That was a top-10 mark in the country.

Selection – Oklahoma


Head Coach: Dabo Swinney or Bob Stoops?

Swinney found success pretty quickly at Clemson but always seemed to fall just short of expectations. There’s a reason “Clemsoning” is a thing. Meanwhile, Stoops gets a bad rap nationally for not winning a national championship since his second season at Oklahoma. But he does have that title, and all he’s done since is win eight conference titles and make nine top bowl games. His record in those previous BCS bowls wasn’t great, but it’s hard to beat the best teams in the country. If Stoops is forever the silver medal coach to whomever’s gold medal, he’s still one of the best in the sport.

Selection – Stoops (OU)


Analytical Edge?

Based on Sports-Reference’s Simple Rating System, which takes into account point differential as well as strength of schedule, Clemson finished the year ranked fourth, with Oklahoma coming in third. The system had OU comfortably ahead of Clemson and just percentage points behind the number-two team. FiveThirtyEight also marks Oklahoma as the better squad, and it does so substantially. According to FiveThirtyEight’s FPI calculations, OU has a 66 percent chance of advancing past Clemson. The Sooners also have the best chance of any playoff team of winning the national championship.

Selection – Oklahoma


End Result?

Oklahoma has the advantage, six categories to three.


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