Orange Bowl is in the heart of ACC territory

A ticket to the national championship game will be on the line New Year’s Eve during a rematch from last season between No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 1 Clemson in the Capital One Orange Bowl.

The game kicks off at 3 p.m.

The Big 12 champion Sooners (11-1) will face the ACC champion Tigers (13-0) in Miami Gardens, Florida at Sun Life Stadium. The winner will play the winner of the Cotton Bowl semifinal between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Michigan. The championship game is January 11 in Glendale, Arizona.

The Capital One Orange Bowl is in the heart of ACC country, which means more fans for Clemson than OU in the stadium but the Sooners have a rich history in the Orange Bowl.

Oklahoma is making its 20th appearance in the Capital One 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.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney will count on Heisman finalist quarterback Deshaun Watson – the ACC player of the year – to run the Tiger offense, ranked 12th in total offense with 510 yards per game.

OU’s resurgence this year was piloted by quarterback Baker Mayfield, who came in fourth in the Heisman balloting.

Clemson running back Wayne Gallman  is 14 yards shy of breaking Clemson’s single-season rushing record. OU will counter with running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, who have combined for more than 2,000 rushing yards and 22 rushing touchdowns.

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said this year’s team is one of his best.

“Oh, it’s definitely at the top with some of our best ones. It’s only a few,” Stoops said. “When you go back to clawing from behind at Tennessee to finishing, everyone counting you out after Texas and then to get on the roll that we did, I don’t think I’ve had a team that changed from the first week to the last four or five weeks as much as this one. That grew, that matured, that really just exploded that way and everything that we’re doing, technique on down to line, to schemes, to everything.

“So it’s gratifying when you’re the one coaching them or part of the one coaching them that, hey, you continue to grow that way and mature and improve. That, to me is very rewarding, and this team did that constantly. And they had the willingness to do it.”

The media credits staff changes for the better record this year but Stoops said OU was better than its win-loss record last season.

“I think a little was made too much of that,” Stoops said. “We were sixth in the country and what, 11-2 the year before, so we weren’t real far off. We weren’t out of the picture real long, and we had some tight losses.

“What turned it around? I think more consistency offensively, definitely and an improved defense. More maturity and consistency on defense, the two of them together made a big change. So we’re a much different team.”

The turning point for the Sooners this year could have been the overtime victory at Tennessee but the loss to Texas seemed to galvanize the Sooners and harden their resolve.

“You know what I noticed immediately?” Stoops said. “As much energy as any practice we’ve ever had, and it was from the start of stretch. When we broke to go to individual, guys had all kinds of energy. You could tell there was a determination that they were going to do something about it. I can’t say when you go out for that first practice that you know you’re going to end at this point, but there was a determination to improve.”

After Texas, OU scored 55, 63, 62, 52, 44, 30 and 58 points as they raced through the meat of the Big 12 schedule undefeated. The Sooners racked up more than 500 yards of total offense in seven straight games to conclude the regular season, outscoring their last seven opponents by an average of 52-19. OU outscored three Top 10 teams – Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State – by a combined score of 132-86 (44-29 average).

A big reason for OU’s improvement over the 8-5 team last season was the play of quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield saved the Tennessee win and caught fire after Texas.

“Baker did an exceptional job,” Stoops said. “And you have to compliment Lincoln Riley our quarterback coach and offensive coordinator. I think he simplified some things formation-wise and some of the things that we were doing by substituting, not substituting, cleaning some things up. From that point on, not only Baker continued to thrive, so did our running game.

“But Baker is exceptional. He’s got an incredibly accurate arm. He has a quick arm, and that innate ability to scramble and make plays running, make plays scrambling, and eventually throwing. So he can do it all and does it with excitement.”

OU lost to Clemson 40-6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando last season. Stoops said then that Clemson had a good team.

“I know they lost a fair amount of guys, but you can tell they beat the heck out of us without Deshaun Watson,” Stoops said. “You talk about a smooth, great athlete throwing the football, running it, all of it, you know? So didn’t surprise me that they continue to have another great year the way they have.

Among the Power Five conferences (Big 12, Big Ten, Southeastern, Pac-12 and Atlantic Coast), the ACC probably has the least respect in football.

Can Clemson handle the pressure of playing for a national championship?

“They’re 13-0. I mean, we’ve played on a big stage all year,” Swinney said of his team. “I think that every week it’s a big stage when you’re in college football. These guys have responded to all the challenges. I think we’ve had great leadership. That’s been the real key. We do have 40 freshmen and 28 of them played this year. But the leadership on our team was consistent all throughout. Didn’t always play perfect, but they just continued to find ways to win each and every week.

“It’s been a fun group, but they’ve responded to every challenge. If we get beat, it’s not going to be because they’re overwhelmed by some stage. It’s because we got beat by a really good football team that was better than us on that day. So, I’m really not worried about that at all.”

Perception about Clemson has improved. Swinney once characterized his program like “a redneck who has moved into a nice neighborhood.”

“I think 7 years ago when I got this job, the biggest goal for me was just to become a consistent program,” Swinney said. “Not really be a great team, but have a great program. A program that’s consistent. It’s been a long time since Clemson was relevant in that top 10, top 15 area. Even though we won a national championship in 1981.

“So that really was our goal, and our objective was to build a program, to not take any shortcuts, and you do that in a lot of ways. Graduation, recruiting, disciplining your program, structure, your staff, all of those things. We’ve been able to become very, very consistent. In 2011 when we won the league for the first time and won ten games for the first time in 20-something years – that was great. That was a good place to start.

“But the message then was, okay, let’s see if we can kind of keep our head down and go play three, four, five ten-plus-win seasons together and become a consistent program. Because if you can be a consistent top-ten, top 15 type program, then you’re going to have those years where you can put it all together. That’s kind of the way it’s been for us.

“But there is no question Clemson belongs. I mean, we’ve been as consistent as anybody out there in the country. Then you’ve got to be able to step out of your conference and win big-time games and we’ve been able to do that. So,a lot of hard work by a lot of great coaches and a lot of great young men over the last seven years. It’s not just this year’s team. It’s been a culmination of all of those guys that have helped us build a good foundation that I think can allow us to sustain that type of consistency.

“We’re kind of that redneck that moved into the nice neighborhood and everybody’s going where’d you come from? But these guys belong right where they are and they’ve earned it.”

Clemson’s defense ranks seventh in the nation in total defense, as well as second in tackles for loss (108) and fifth in team sacks (38).

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables was a long-time assistant for Stoops at OU before going to Clemson.

Linebackers Dominque Alexander and Erick Striker lead the Sooner defense. Alexander leads the team in tackles (91) and Striker leads the team in sacks (7.5). Oklahoma’s defense has hauled in 19 interceptions, which ranks seventh in the nation, and boasts a plus-10 turnover margin.

The College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl (66,524) is officially sold out.

This is the first year the Capital One Orange Bowl will host a semifinal game. Over the next 11 years, the Capital One Orange Bowl will host a playoff semifinal every three years.