Led by a smothering defense, Clemson is going to play for its first national championship since 1981.
Based on what we saw against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, it looks like the Tigers are going to win it.
Make no mistake about it: this was an outstanding performance by the Tigers. After all, Oklahoma entered this contest as the hottest team in the country, closing out the regular season with victories over three ranked opponents (Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma State). The Sooner running game looked absolutely dominant during this stretch averaging 306 yards per game and 5.96 yards per carry.
None of that mattered Thursday afternoon. Despite struggling against the run late in the year (197 yards versus Florida State, 242 against Syracuse, and 181 against South Carolina), the Tiger front seven dominated this contest. Even though it was without the services of superstar Shaq Lawson for most of the game, Clemson’s big uglies owned the line of scrimmage all day long, limiting the Sooners to a season-low 67 yards rushing, and recording five sacks.
In addition to these stellar stats, it’s worth pointing out that it was the Tiger defense that allowed the team to break the game open in the second half. After Clemson punched the ball in on the first drive to take a 23-17 lead, the Clemson D responded by forcing Oklahoma into three straight negative plays. When the Sooners got the ball back after a missed field goal, the Tiger defense stopped Samaje Perrine for no gain on fourth down, ending a drive that could have allowed OU to take the lead. This crucial stop fired up the Clemson offense, which would reach the end zone four plays later to take a commanding 13-point lead. While Oklahoma eventually got back into Clemson territory, the Tiger pass defense prevented them from scoring by picking off Baker Mayfield twice.
Considering that Mayfield had thrown only five picks all season, that’s quite an accomplishment.
The Tiger offense also deserves a “shout out” for how well it played against the Sooners. Sure, OU gave up its share of yardage this season, but it came into the contest 10th nationally in yards per play and allowing just 3.62 yards per carry. Yet, Clemson’s offense had no trouble moving the ball (especially in the second half) with Wayne Gallman (150 yards) and Deshaun Watson (145) combining for almost 300 yards on the ground.
It’s tough to argue with those results.
So, what does Clemson’s impressive victory mean in the grand scheme of things?
Simply put: it makes the Tigers the favorite to win the College Football Playoff. Yes, some pundits continue to spew the “Clemson hasn’t beaten anybody” or “The Tigers would have five losses in the SEC” nonsense, but the fact of the matter is that Oklahoma is the fourth top 10 team (in the CFP rankings) Dabo Swinney’s team has beaten this season. Considering that the defense has held two top-20 offenses to well under their season averages in yardage over the last two games, I don’t see any reason why Clemson shouldn’t be favored to win the national championship – regardless of whether it’s Alabama or Michigan State.