Fireworks begin early to ring in the new year when the No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners and No. 1 Clemson Tigers meet in the first of two College Football Playoff semifinal matchups Thursday in the Orange Bowl.
Clemson enters the contest hoping to go a historic 15-0 after walloping Oklahoma 40-6 last year in the Russell Athletic Bowl before running the table this year and outscoring the opposition a whopping 500-263 behind Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson.
Not that Oklahoma should worry about the last meeting at all. Oklahoma's a much different team this time around under the guidance of Baker Mayfield, who guided the Sooners to winning the Big 12 outright and an 11-1 record, including wins against five ranked teams.
Thursday's going to be a shootout that quietly features evenly matched defenses, too, otherwise translated as the perfect entry fee to the title game. Here's everything to know.
When: Thursday, December 31, at 4 p.m. ET
Where: Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Spread: Oklahoma (-4)
Team Injury Reports
|Gabriel Campbell||DE||Out Thurs|
|Prentice McKinney||S||Out Thurs|
|Daniel Brooks||RB||Out Wed|
|Jordan Thomas||CB||Prob Wed|
|Rodney Anderson||RB||Out for season|
|Kenyon Frison||T||Out indefinitely|
Source: USA Today.
|Artavis Scott||WR||Prob Thurs|
|Mike Williams||WR||Out for season|
|Korrin Wiggins||S||Out for season|
Source: USA Today.
Injury reports courtesy of USA Today.
The Right Motivation
Though headlines and noise might suggest otherwise, Oklahoma's loss to Clemson last year isn't a motivating factor here.
Now-transferred Trevor Knight led the Sooners then and tossed a trio of interceptions in the ugly contest. New starter Mayfield has thrown five interceptions all year on more than 350 attempts.
"I don't think any of it is about getting teams back," cornerback Zack Sanchez said, according to ESPN.com. "The ultimate motivation right now is winning a national championship."
Mayfield, in an interesting turn of events, finished fourth behind Watson in Heisman voting. He completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 3,389 yards and 35 touchdowns to the five picks while adding another 420 yards and seven scores on the ground with zero fumbles.
Some of the nation's best skill players ensure the junior won't have to do it on his own. Top wideout Sterling Shepard catches nearly everything thrown in his general area (79 catches, 1,201 yards and 11 scores), and running back Samaje Perine, owner of 1,291 yards and 15 scores, keeps defenses honest.
The right motivation in hand, Mayfield needs his legs and players around him to make a difference against the nation's seventh-ranked pass defense that has 38 sacks.
No team has ever gone 15-0, but Clemson's close enough to taste it—not to mention a national title.
The run of momentum began in last year's bowl game, though it's important to point out Watson didn't suit up for that contest, either.
A sophomore, Watson completed 69.5 percent of his passes for 3,512 yards and a 30-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He also added 887 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground, including four clutch 100-yard rushing days over the final five games of the season.
Oklahoma safety Ahmad Thomas summed it up best, according to Steve Gorten of the Associated Press: "If he gets out of the cage, we're going to have a problem."
Coincidentally, Oklahoma also touts 38 sacks and ranks among the top 12 defenses in the nation against the pass. For Watson, breaking free of the rush and hitting one of his many targets will reign supreme:
|Artavis Scott||84||805||9.6||51 (TD)||5|
|Jordan Leggett||34||442||13.0||34 (TD)||7|
The leader there, Artavis Scott, should be able to give the game a go, which does nothing short of further diversify an attack no team has been able to contain all year.
Those in charge of the CFP rankings did an outstanding job with this pairing, and for Clemson, it's borderline poetic that to remain perfect, the performance Thursday will indeed need to be perfect.
Which team will win?
Watson's only improved as the season's went on, making him a serious problem for the Oklahoma defense.
Folks might be disappointed, but this one will start as a defensive battle as two great units feel each other out. Out of the halftime tunnel, though, both outstanding quarterbacks will turn it on and put on a show.
The edge, though, goes to Watson, who can take the game over on his own and neutralize the Oklahoma running game by pulling Clemson ahead. The Tigers' wealth of weapons can spread out the Oklahoma defense and provide Watson with plenty of running lanes.
Look for Clemson's defense to fluster Mayfield once the Sooners have to take to the air late, while Watson coasts and makes a statement about missing out on some individual hardware.
Prediction: Clemson 38, Oklahoma 35