With less than two days left in the 2015 calendar year, the NCAA will crown just its second ever college football playoff champion. Only four teams and two games remain, which will be played on New Year’s Eve and we preview them both. So read on for our picks and predictions.
The first semifinal takes place via the Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, Florida between the top seeded, undefeated Clemson Tigers and the outright champions of the Big 12, the Oklahoma Sooners (4pm ET, Thursday).
Opening the season with four dominant and decisive wins, it wasn’t until the Red River Rivalry against the Texas Longhorns that Oklahoma suffered its first and subsequently only loss of the season. The Sooners impressively finished the season as one of the top offenses, averaging 45.8 points per game, enough for third best in all of the NCAA FBS. Additionally, Oklahoma had the highest FPI (football power index ranking) and best SOS (strength of schedule) in the league across the 2015 season. Oklahoma also ranked as having the 2nd best overall efficiency rating among all FBS teams.
For these reasons, Oklahoma, despite being the fourth seed, comes into this game as 3.5 point favorites. The Sooners also have the second best odds, behind Alabama, to win it all.
But the matchup won’t be easy as Oklahoma finds themselves pitted against the ACC champs and lone undefeated team of the 2015 FBS season, the Clemson Tigers.
Led by Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson, Clemson worked through a tough schedule that included games against Notre Dame, Florida State and North Carolina, all of which finished the season ranked in the top 16. The Tigers found themselves rarely challenged, only thrice having a game decided by five points or less. In the regular season finale against North Carolina, Clemson showed why it was the nation’s best team as they came back from a deficit to defeat the Tar Heels and win the ACC Championship for the second time in the last three seasons.
The Tigers finished the season with the 6th best FPI, 2nd best strength of record and 1st in game control. Additionally, with an offense ranked 12th and a defense ranked 2nd, Clemson finished with the third best overall efficiency among all FBS teams.
Clemson’s One Man Offense Ready to Stymie Staunch Sooner Defense
According to ESPN’s total QBR (QB Rating), which aims to be the most comprehensive measure of a quarterback’s overall performance, Watson is the third-highest rated QB in the nation, less than two points behind Baylor’s Seth Russell in the top spot. To be fair, Russell only managed seven games, albeit seven excellent ones, before an injury forced him to miss the rest of the season.
If looking specifically at raw stats, Watson ranks in the top 20 in total yards (3512) and top 10 in touchdowns (30). Adding in his 887 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground, Watson is one of the best in the nation. Impressive stats aside though, Clemson would be nowhere without Watson, who through his contributions in both the rushing and passing game, is responsible for 66 percent of his team’s total yards. No other QB comes close to matching that kind of involvement and across the league, Watson’s season is one that hadn’t been seen since Johnny Manziel put up similar numbers in 2012.
Watson is one of just 14 quarterbacks over the past 11 years to post a QBR of 75 or better while also rushing for at least 30 percent of his team’s total yards. His QBR of 86.6 in those games ranks him fifth among those 14 QBs. The sophomore is a one-man offense and one that could cause trouble even for a defense as staunch as Oklahoma’s has been.
Oklahoma’s Offense and Defense = A Perfect Balance
Clemson has won because of Watson’s ability to run the offense both through the air and on the ground. Well, Oklahoma doesn’t have that kind of player. Instead, they have a team from top to bottom that is incredibly balanced and incredibly consistent.
Baker Mayfield (pictured) leads what has been a prolific passing attack, collecting close to 3400 yards through the air and an FBS 6th best 35 total touchdowns. Unlike Watson who is his own running back, Oklahoma has a strong duo in the backfield that has combined for over 2,000 yards.
Mayfield and the rest of the offense aren’t alone though in terms of value production as Oklahoma’s defense is no slouch. Led by standout linebacker Eric Striker, the Sooners rank top 10 among FBS teams in sacks and interceptions to go with their already 4th best overall defense. According to the metrics, this makes Oklahoma the only team in the country to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, a formula that tends to lend itself to championship gold.
Our Preview’s Oklahoma Sooners vs Clemson Tigers Betting Picks
With two top defenses and two strong offenses, this game should be one for the ages and one that very well would be deserving of the national championship. However, it is just a semifinal meaning one of these teams has to lose. Given the impact Oklahoma has had all season, doing so with a tough schedule and top FPI, the only thing that kept the Sooners from higher than a fourth seed was likely the lack of a conference championship appearance. But putting that aside, no one is denying the power and balance the Sooners bring to the table. As good as Watson is, that consistency will be hard to match as it has been for every team this season.