The highly anticipated Orange Bowl, along with the equally anticipated Cotton Bowl, are upon us. Both games of the second installment of the College Football Playoffs are set for New Year’s Eve and by midnight or so (while Ryan Seacrest and Anderson Cooper are counting down the end of the year in New York City), the country will know which two teams will vie for the national championship. But the Orange Bowl, which pits the Clemson Tigers against the Oklahoma Sooners, has first billing and features the only Football Bowl Subdivision team to finish the season undefeated. They’re the No. 1 team in the nation, a spot they’ve held since Week 10 of the regular season, but rankings mean little on the field of play and the No. 4 Sooners would like nothing better than to end the winning streak and see themselves a step closer to taking that top spot.
According to Las Vegas oddsmakers, as reported by ESPN on December 31, the Oklahoma Sooners, a team that has lost but one game all season (to arch-rival Texas), is favored to win the Orange Bowl. As of Wednesday, the Sooners were a 3.5-point favorite over the Tigers. However, more money was spent on wagers regarding Clemson (most likely due to their underdog status, a position where they do not have to cover the point spread, just get inside of it or win the game to pay the bettor).
Both teams will hit the field at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens with high-powered offenses. Oklahoma is average almost 543 yards per game, while Clemson is close behind with nearly 511. Both quarterbacks are nationally recognized, with Clemson’s DeShaun Watson, whose total offense placed him among the top ten FBS players of the season, making the Heisman Trophy short-list and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield thinking that he should have. (Mayfield’s case? He completed 43 fewer passes and passed for five more touchdowns (35 – 30), threw for just 123 less yards (1,389 – 1,512), and threw six fewer interceptions (5 – 12). Oklahoma’s passing offense is ranked at No. 17 to Clemson’s No. 24 as well, according to NCAA.com.)
But the Sooner’s have Sterling Shepard, one of the best receivers in the nation. He’s ranked 13th in the nation, averaging just over 100 yards per game. With Oklahoma ranking higher in total offense (No. 6 to Clemson’s No. 13), the game could very well be points-heavy shootout.
Still, the game could be one where defense could make all the difference. Oklahoma has the 13th best turnover margin in the nation and their secondary is geared for interceptions (19). Clemson’s secondary netted a respectable 14 on the year as well.
Although the scoring defenses of both teams are comparable (Clemson allows 20.2 per game while Oklahoma allows 20.8), the overall defense category goes to Clemson. The Tigers have the No. 7 defense in the country, allowing slightly less than 296 yards per game. The Sooners are ranked 29th, giving up nearly 351 yards each game.
And then there are the intangibles that can affect a team’s performance. Like momentum. Oklahoma going in just knocked off three ranked teams — Baylor, Oklahoma State, and TCU. Clemson, on the other hand, knocked off ACC rivals North Carolina, ranked No. 10, for the ACC championship but only beat their hapless intrastate rival South Carolina by five points. (Still, besides the Louisville game early in the season, where they won by only 3, no team came closer than 10 points of beating the Tigers all season.) But there is also the disciplinary move earlier this week, where three players were suspended and sent home for rules infractions, something that could adversely affect the team’s mood and morale. And then there is the possible grudge the Sooners just might hold against Clemson for last year’s shellacking in the Russell Athletic Bowl, where the Tigers crushed Oklahoma 40-6.
But as we all know, statistics are meaningless except as possible indicators of performance. What really counts is how the teams play in the moment. And that moment, at least for Oklahoma and Clemson, will last roughly three hours or so in Miami Gardens in Florida. The 82nd Capital One Orange Bowl will kick off at 4 p.m. (EST) on December 31 on ESPN. The winner will go on to play the victor in the Cotton Bowl contest, where No. 2 Alabama takes on No. 3 Michigan State, later in the day.
UPDATE: After trailing by a point at halftime, 17-16, the Clemson Tigers rolled to victory over Oklahoma 37-17, not allowing the Sooners offense to put a single point on the board in the final two quarters.