Clemson isn’t quite the “Purple People Eaters” but their colors are the same – with a little orange mixed in to its uniforms.
Most games start and end in the trenches. This one is no different.
Oklahoma’s offensive line will have to control a Clemson defense that ranks in the top 10 in rushing defense (seventh), passing defense (third), scoring defense (sixth) and total defense (first).
The No. 17 Tigers are also tops in the nation in tackles for loss and rank in the top five in sacks.
“It’s as good as any of them that we faced and may be the best,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “I always have a hard time saying anything may be the best, but when you look at the talented players and Brent does a great job with them. They’re an experienced group.”
It starts with likely two-time All-American defensive end Vic Beasley, but there’s not a lot of fall off after him. There are seven seniors in the starting lineup, and Clemson had three All-ACC players on its defense.
“I could sit here and compliment them all day, but we all know that they’re a great defense,” Oklahoma tight end Blake Bell said. “Every part of it – D-line, linebackers, safeties, corners – they’re all very solid. We’re just going to get out there and do our best to prepare.”
That is the key position battle for the Russell Athletic Bowl. Here’s a look at how each team compares across the board:
Quarterback: Kind of two surprise starters in this one. Trevor Knight is recovering from an injury, and Cole Stoudt is starting because of one. That’s not the only way they’re similar. The pair has a combined 19 interceptions and only 20 passing touchdowns. Stoudt has far fewer touchdowns but does have a higher completion rate. Both also have decent legs, recording more than 60 carries in shortened seasons. Stoudt has the experience, though. Oklahoma has the slightly better quarterback, because Knight didn’t lose his starting job due to poor play – only injury.
Running backs: Two freshmen who started the season low on the depth chart will play a huge role when these two teams square off. Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine has the better numbers, but Wayne Gallman had a slightly later start to the spotlight. Can you imagine how different this season would be if Oklahoma didn’t have Perine in its backfield? Perine has at least 150 yards and two touchdowns in each of the past three games
Wide receivers: If Sterling Shepard is on the field and 100 percent, he’s the best receiver on the field. It has been like that almost every week for Oklahoma. Clemson’s Artavis Scott is a bit like Shepard. Only he hangs out in the slot, where his 5-foot-10 frame has allowed him to thrive. The Tigers also bring 6-foot-4 Mike Williams, who although just a sophomore is averaging almost 20 yards per reception. Durron Neal, K.J. Young and Michiah Quick, who could be in for a break-out game, have all been to inconsistent to think that the Sooners truly match up with Clemson.
Tight end: This game represents a huge opportunity for Oklahoma tight end Blake Bell. He has a chance to prove he can do everything the NFL would want: Catch passes against a top defense and at time solo blocker some of the best linebackers and defensive linemen in the country. He might even get matched up on Beasley once or twice. Clemson has more depths and better college tight ends.
Offensive line: Clemson’s offensive line is no slouch, but Oklahoma has proved over the last three games that it has the best offensive line in the Sooners. Oklahoma has rushed for almost 1,200 yards in the final three games of the season and still has the fewest sacks in the country.
Defensive line: As much as the offensive line is a no-brainer in favor of Oklahoma, Clemson has by far the better defensive line. The Tigers are obviously a stout run defense, but combined with a top-ranked pass rush that averages that averages 3.67 sacks per game, Clemson is the best defensive line in the country.
Linebackers: Beasley might be an outside linebacker in the NFL, but right now, the Clemson linebackers don’t include one of the top defensive players in the country. That doesn’t take anything away from them. From a positional standpoint, Oklahoma’s Eric Striker is the most disruptive linebacker in the game, but he’s just one player. Led by Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward, Clemson also averages 10.2 tackles for loss per game. No other team in the nation averages more than nine.
Secondary: This is the biggest positional matchup disparity. It’s almost a no-contest. Oklahoma has questions all over its secondary. Oklahoma has just one more interception than the Tigers, and Clemson has one of the best pass defenses in the nation.
Special teams: Alex Ross and Nick Hodgson are two of the best at their position, but the last time Jed Barnett punted, it was the worst mistake of the Sooners’ season. Michael Hunnicutt isn’t the most accurate kicker in recent history, either. Still, Clemson hasn’t hit a field goal since Nov. 15 – a span of two games. Oklahoma isn’t as good as it once was, but it’ll be as good once, as it ever was.