Three early keys to Clemson-Oklahoma

The No. 1 Tigers and No. 4 Sooners will meet in the College Football Playoff semifinals -- here's what you need to know.

| 2 years ago
(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

Three early keys to Clemson-Oklahoma

The semi-final matchup between the Clemson Tigers and Oklahoma Sooners provides us with an intriguing showdown that pits the top team in the College Football Playoff rankings against arguably the hottest team in the country — with the Sooners ending the season with big wins over Big-12 rivals Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State.

1. Baker Mayfield vs. Deshaun Watson

If you like matchups between the two best quarterbacks in the nation, you’ll be excited for this one. Since Week 7, no quarterbacks have a higher grade than Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (+32.7) and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson (+28.0). Both have made an impact as passers, but also added to their respective offenses in the running game too. Both are incredibly accurate, with adjusted accuracy percentages of 78.3 percent for Mayfield and 77.6 percent for Watson, coming in at fifth and sixth amongst all quarterbacks in college football this season.

Mayfield has been more accurate on deep passes, with an adjusted accuracy percentage of 55.8 percent, fourth in the country, while Watson is a bit further back at a respectable 47.8 percent. Both are capable of taking over a game, and have done several times this season. The advantage Mayfield has is that the Sooners also boast our highest graded wide receiver in Sterling Shepard (+30.8). The Tigers have talented receivers themselves — most notably Artavis Scott (+8.6) — but they lack someone having Shepard’s type of season. The Sooners’ top playmaker has dropped just four of the 82 catchable passes thrown his way and forced 11 missed tackles.

2. Which Shaq Lawson will show up?

When the Tigers beat North Carolina on Saturday night to clinch the ACC Championship, and secure their status as the number one seed in the College Football Playoff, they did so with defensive end Shaq Lawson (+34.2) having his best game of the year. He made his impact against the run, but really made his presence felt as a pass rusher, culminating in the fourth quarter strip sack. On the year he has racked up 10 sacks, 11 hits and 17 hurries, and is Clemson’s best pass rusher by some distance.

The problem with Lawson, is that as good as he can be, there are far too many occasions when he just doesn’t make that kind of impact. In five of the 13 games played this season he has registered just one total pressure, failing to provide the type of consistency that would make him one of the top pass rushers in the nation. Instead, he’s the type of player who can dominate, as he did last night, but just as easily disappear in a game. Going up against a passing offense as good as Oklahoma’s they need him at his very beat to cause havoc against Mayfield.

3. Oklahoma running backs have been hot.

We know all about Baker Mayfield and the Sooners’ potent passing attack, but they have also been running the ball really well in the second half of 2015, with both Samaje Perine (+16.0) and Joe Mixon (+15.1) making a real impact. From weeks one to six, Perine and Mixon graded at +0.4 and +0.0 respectively, or tied for 129th and 139th in the country. Simply put, they weren’t getting a lot from them. That changed in the second half of the season though.

Between weeks seven and thirteen, when the Sooners played their last game of the regular season, their running backs had improved so much that both running backs graded in the top 12 at the position. Perine (+15.6) came in at 8th, forcing 33 missed tackles on 129 carries, while Mixon (+15.1) forced 23 from 75 and was 12th. Grade wise they have been the best running back tandem in the country in the second half of 2015. With the best quarterback in the country to go with that, it just makes their offense all the more dangerous heading into the College Football Playoff semi-final.

Make sure to check out our preview of the other side of the bracket as well: Alabama-Michigan State. 

| Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst

Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.

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