MIAMI GARDENS (CBSMiami/AP) — Thursday’s College Football Playoff semifinal in South Florida should be a tightly matched one, but fans and media members have a good idea of what to expect.
No one will be tuning in to the Orange Bowl looking for a defensive slugfest.
Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is used to lighting up the scoreboard. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield has shredded one helpless defense after another.
“People love seeing high-powered offenses and guys slinging the ball around,” said Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware, sounding a bit gloomy as he looked ahead to Thursday’s national semifinal game. “The viewers want to see Deshaun throw for 600 yards and Mayfield throw for 600 yards.”
While no one is ready to bury the ol’ adage that defense wins championships, it needs a bit of tweaking with these teams.
Clemson (13-0) gave up more than 30 points in its last two games, but Watson & Co. made sure it didn’t ruin the perfect season. The Tigers held off South Carolina 37-32 in their regular-season finale, then survived a 45-37 track meet with North Carolina to capture the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
Oklahoma (11-1) followed a similar path to the College Football Playoff. The Sooners gave up at least 20 points in eight games, more than 30 a couple of times. It cost them only once — an upset loss to Texas.
Despite all those shaky performances, neither defense is lacking bravado.
“I know what we’ve got,” Oklahoma outside linebacker Eric Striker said Tuesday during media day at Sun Life Stadium. “We know what it takes to win the game. One thing about the media: They’ve got to talk, they’ve got to come up with stuff.”
The media has nothing to do with the national statistics, which have Oklahoma outside the top 20 in all four major defensive categories. The Sooners are tied for 22nd in points allowed (20.8 per game).
Clemson has been stingy when it comes to defending the pass, but a bit leaky against the run. The Tigers are giving 20.2 points a game, tied for 18th nationally.
“It’s about getting the W,” Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander said. “It ain’t always gonna be pretty. When I hear people say, ‘Aww, you guys gave up all these points,’ I’m like, ‘We’re the number one team in the country.’ Everybody is gonna play us hard, have tricks, do everything they can. For the last six weeks, everybody has been throwing everything at us, everything they’ve got.”
Only two teams in the last 30 years have won national titles while allowing at least 20 points a game, but both have come in the last five seasons — mirroring the game’s ever-increasing emphasis on offense.
Ohio State won the championship a year ago despite giving up 22.0 points per contest, ranking 26th nationally. Cam Newton-led Auburn finished No. 1 in 2010 while surrendering an average of 24.1 points, which placed a mediocre 53rd in the national rankings.
Of course, it’s still a better bet that a team will claim the title by stopping the other team from scoring. Between Auburn and Ohio State, three straight national champions (Alabama in 2011-12, Florida State in 2013) ranked No. 1 in points allowed. In the last three decades, just five other champions finished higher than 10th nationally in points allowed.
None of that seems to faze these teams.
“We’ve very flexible on defense,” Alexander said. “What we’re able to do on defense, nobody can match that. There are defensive coordinators in college football who are like, ‘Man, I wish I could be coaching you guys.’ We’ve got a lot of great players.”
Playing in the run-and-gun Big 12 Conference, Oklahoma is used to facing dynamic offenses.
This might be their toughest challenge yet. Start with Watson, a Heisman Trophy finalist and probably the most dangerous two-way threat in the country. He can beat you with his arm (3,512 yards passing, 30 touchdowns), he can beat you with his legs (887 yards rushing, 11 TDs). He has weapons all around, including running back Wayne Gallman (1,332 yards rushing, 10 TDs) and nine players with double-figure receptions led by Artavis Scott (84 receptions).
Mayfield and the Sooners are just as daunting. The junior quarterback has passed for 3,389 yards with 35 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He, too, can take off and run, which led Boulware to describe him as “kind of Manzielesque” — a nod to former Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel. Three Oklahoma receivers have hauled in more than 40 passes, while Samaje Perine has rushed for 1,291 yards and 15 TDs.
Hard to see this being a defensive struggle.
That’s not to say it won’t come down to a big defensive play.
“Whenever you’ve got two great offenses,” said Clemson linebacker B.J. Goodson, “it’s always gonna be about who’s making big stops in big moments.”
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