To advance to the national championship, Oklahoma must defeat the No. 1 team in the nation – a team that humiliated the Sooners 40-6 last season.
No. 4 Oklahoma will face No. 1 Clemson in the 2015 College Football Playoff (CFP) Semifinal at the Orange Bowl on December 31 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., at 4 p.m.
While none of the Sooners are talking in terms of revenge, Oklahoma this year has defeated four of the five teams (TCU, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State) that beat them last year.
The only one left is Clemson.
In last season’s Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, Clemson’s defense forced five Sooner turnovers and held OU to 275 yards. The Sooners didn’t score until the fourth quarter because of the Tiger defense, led by defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who formerly coached at OU.
OU was favored by three points going into the game. OU running back Samaje Perine rushed 23 times for 148 yards but quarterback Trevor Knight hit only 17 of 27 passes with three costly interceptions.
“It was one of those nights when it was just our night,” Venables said after the bowl game.
This is a different year and an improved Oklahoma team. Oddsmakers say OU is favored to beat Clemson and to win the national title, even though they are the No. 4 seed.
“I think the biggest thing is what kind of personnel they have,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Sunday. “They have great personnel regardless what the style is. That’s what makes college football so great; you see so many different things from week to week. We have to prepare all year long for a lot of different things. They do do a lot of similar things that we do. But you’ve got to execute, you’ve got to be able to stop those things.
“Nobody has really stopped Oklahoma all year long. Especially with this quarterback.”
Clemson beat Coach Les Miles and LSU in 2012, Coach Urban Meyer in 2013 and Stoops in 2014. Both Miles and Meyer have won national championships.
“They are a great opponent,” OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said of Clemson. “We are familiar with each other but I think we understand that we have to play a whole lot better but we are playing a whole lot better than we did a year ago.”
Stoops said he talked to Venables a lot this season, mostly at the beginning of the year.
“He’s done a great job defensively and we have shared ideas,” Stoops said. “Their style is a little different than ours. Both are obviously very successful.”
Stoops called Venables “a great friend” but it becomes business when OU plays Clemson.
Oklahoma made changes after falling to 8-5 last year. They fired offensive coordinator Josh Heupel and hired Lincoln Riley from East Carolina.
Stoops said he wasn’t surprised that Riley was able to be so successful in his first season at Oklahoma.
“He’s willing to adjust and adapt and that’s what all great coaches do,” Stoops said.
The Sooner coaches are in the middle of recruiting but Stoops said the game with Clemson will be at the forefront as they try to figure out what to do differently after last year.
“This is not your average bowl game,” Stoops said. “This is a different deal because you are playing for a championship and there is a possibility of another game.”
Game preparations will be similar to a normal bowl game with the added aspect of preparing for the winner of the Alabama-Michigan State Cotton Bowl game – the other national semifinal.
With more than a month between the Bedlam win over Oklahoma State and the Orange Bowl, it could be a challenge to keep playing at a high level.
“I think we were beat up a bit at the end of the year – everyone is beat up at this stage of the game,” Stoops said. “We have some great players who were not playing at 100 percent. We need to get our team strong and healthy. Finding a rhythm is what you always worry about. I think it more offensively than defensively.
“They’re smart. We go a lot of good on good (first team defense versus first team offense). We will try to find that offensive rhythm that we had but all teams are facing that.”
OU reached one of their goals – winning the Big 12 – and now receiver Sterling Shepard wants a shot a national title.
“It’s exciting to get our first goal knocked out of the way,” said Shepard. “Now we are in the phase of going into our second goal.”
Some Sooner fans were disappointed that OU didn’t wind up in nearby Dallas at the Cotton Bowl but Shepard said he and the players don’t mind going to the Orange Bowl in Miami.
“I was just happy we were in the top four and excited to find out who we are going to be playing,” Shepard said.
Last year, Shepard was having a breakout year when he hurt his hamstring. He never got fully well and was limited in the loss to Clemson in the bowl game.
“We have come a long way,” Shepard said. “This team is a totally different team than last year. We let that one loss turn into something more. This year, there is a mentality change. Since that loss, we have been going uphill. We made a big emphasis on that after the loss to Texas. We weren’t going to let it snowball. And we have done a great job of doing that.
“That was a tough loss for us. But we have to look past that.”
Shepard said Riley talked about the importance of a tough mentality.
“I look back at last year and I see the team this year and that is the big difference,” Shepard said. “Guys were looking ahead, too. We heard everything in media, that we were going to be in the playoffs and everybody was looking ahead to that. We need to take one game at a time.”
OU has won seven games in a row and averaged 52 points a game in that stretch.
“I believe it’s not going to be a problem picking up where we left off,” Shepard said.
Clemson got to the Orange Bowl by beating North Carolina in the ACC championship game. The Clemson offense ranks 12th in the nation and is averaging 510.6 yards-per-game.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was the ACC Player of the Year and is a finalist for the Walter Camp, Maxwell and Davey O’Brien Awards. Watson led the ACC in passing yards and passing touchdowns.
Clemson running back Wayne Gallman is just 14 yards away from breaking Clemson’s single-season rushing record.
The Tiger defense is led by Bronko Nagurski and Lombardi Awards finalist Shaq Lawson. Lawson leads the nation with 22.5 tackles-for-loss. Clemson’s defense is seventh in the nation in total defense, as well as second in tackles for loss (108) and fifth in team sacks (38).
Oklahoma has won nine Big 12 championships under Coach Bob Stoops, in his 17th season.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield is a finalist for the Water Camp and Davey O’Brien Awards. The Oklahoma offense ranks third in the nation in scoring offense averaging 45.8 points-per-game and seventh in the nation in total offense averaging 542.9 yards-per-game.
Perine and fellow running back Joe Mixon combined for more than 2,000 rushing yards and 22 rushing touchdowns.
OU linebackers Dominque Alexander leads the team in tackles (91) and Erik Striker leads the team in sacks (7.5). Oklahoma’s defense has 19 interceptions, which ranks seventh in the nation.
Oklahoma is making its 20th appearance in the Orange Bowl, the most of any team in the history of the bowl game. The Sooners also own Orange Bowl records for most wins by a team (12), consecutive wins (3) and wins in a decade (4). Oklahoma has completed four national championship seasons with a victory in the Orange Bowl.
Clemson is making its sixth Orange Bowl appearance and third in five years. Clemson won its only national title, completing an undefeated 1981 season, in the 1982 Orange Bowl.
The 2015 College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Orange Bowl is officially sold out.