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CFB Playoff 2015-2016: Previewing Orange Bowl

Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
It is easy to understand why there was anxiety around the Oklahoma football program entering 2015-2016. The Sooners were coming off a 8-5 year, a year in which they were a trendy Playoff pick. They were coming off major staff changes, that included bringing in 32-year-old Lincoln Riley as offensive coordinator. They were losing a number of players to the NFL, and above it all were the face of a university going through questions after a video of a racist frat went viral. And yet, what happened? The Sooners used Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield to engineer an improbable and entertaining rise to the College Football Playoff, where they will get their shot at taking down the nation's top squad, the Clemson Tigers in an Orange Bowl set to be a great one.

Mayfield arrived from Texas Tech to Norman as a walk-on. He had his moments at Texas Tech, but Kliff Kingsbury would soon fall in love with another young quarterback, Davis Webb, essentially forcing Mayfield out. Mayfield came out of nowhere to take over the quarterback job from incumbent Trevor Knight and threw 3,389 yards and 35 touchdowns. Just as impressive is the fact that he had just five interceptions and showed amazing efficiency despite being in air raid offense. Mayfield is a fearless, exciting player and Clemson's defense will have their hands full containing the junior. They will also have their hands full with the two-headed backfield, headed by Samaje Perine. Perine is a bulldog, amazingly strong for his size, but also possessing great speed and explosiveness. He will be joined by youthful Joe Mixon, who has had some moments this season. Expect big things as well from receiver Sterling Shepard. Shepard is truly a great story, a guy who grew up with the Oklahoma program and had to endure some tough years earlier in his career. Now though, he is the star receiver on the Big 12 Champion Sooners. The Tigers will attempt to counter Shepard with their top defensive back Mackensie Alexander, a proven NFL prospect. The former five-star recruit has amazing agility and great awareness, but Shepard should still find ways to make plays. Expect junior college transfer Dede Westbrook and underrated Durron Neal to help out Mayfield in the lethal Oklahoma passing game as well.

On the other side, Clemson is far from a slouch on the offensive side of the ball. Sophomore Deshaun Watson, along with a suffocating defense, was a major reason why the Tigers went 13-0 and finished off the regular season with the nation's No. 1 spot. Watson built on a very promising true freshman year by throwing for 3,512 yards and 30 touchdowns and also showing he can be very dangerous with his legs, helping him finish off third in Heisman voting. Oklahoma's defense has been productive all season long, and it will be interesting to see how they handle Watson. The Sooners do have a number of solid players in their front seven that should help them succeed. Joining Watson is back Wayne Gallman, who put together a quietly huge year. With many teams focused intently on Watson, Gallman took advantage and ran for 1,332 yards and 10 scores. Gallman isn't an absolutely electrifying player, but he is a hard runner that can move the chains consistently. The Sooners will have to stop a number of Clemson weapons on the perimeter, mainly Artavis Scott, who has been Watson's favorite target over the past two years. Expect cornerback Zack Sanchez to be the one tasked with slowing down Scott. Sanchez has long been an established defensive back for Oklahoma, and has been even better this season.

While both teams will get a lot of attention because of their offenses, the talent on the other side of the ball is undeniable. Behind underrated defensive coordinator Brent Venables, Clemson held opponents to just 20 points per game, and showed a knack for forcing turnovers. Not only will Alexander play a big role in defending Shepard, but expect a big day from defensive end Shaq Lawson (in what should be his final game in a Tiger uniform) and the experienced crop of linebackers Clemson possesses. For Oklahoma, Sanchez will obviously play a huge role, as will linemen Charles Tapper. But, the player that may wreak the most havoc in this one is Eric Striker. Striker made a name for himself in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama in 2014, and is a physically imposing outside linebacker. Striker is blessed with a powerful first step and incredible stamina. He should definitely be dialed in and ready to get after Watson. Expect Clemson to install special blocking packages just so tame Striker.

In the two Playoff semifinals, this matchup holds the most intrigue for me. Not only does it feature two exciting offenses that can put points up in a hurry, it features two interesting squads. Clemson isn't familiar to being the team everyone wants to take down nationally, and it will be interesting to see how they adjust. Meanwhile, Oklahoma feels like a underdog, and is on absolute fire since a midseason drubbing at the hands of Texas. The more I watch Oklahoma, the more I see last year's Ohio State team. So many of the pieces fit together. Mayfield represents Cardale Jones, a highly doubted, but strong-armed and strong-willed quarterback. Mixon and Perine represent Ezekiel Elliott running all over opposing defenders. And, Shepard represents Devin Smith from a year ago, a senior ready to go out in a big way. Clemson is a heck of a football team and they might win against either Michigan State or Alabama. But, they drew a motivated and hungry Oklahoma team that nobody wants to play.
Oklahoma, 35 Clemson, 31

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