WHO: No. 17 Clemson (9-3) vs. Oklahoma (8-4)
WHAT: The 25th Russell Athletic Bowl
WHERE: Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando, Fla.
WHEN: 5:30 p.m. ET Dec. 29 on ESPN
THE SKINNY: The story lines here are obvious – the quarterbacks and the defensive coordinators. Let’s start with the quarterbacks. Clemson is without Deshaun Watson after the freshman underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL. He played in the Tigers’ 35-17 win over South Carolina, and the program’s original plan was to play him in the bowl game and schedule surgery for January, but head coach Dabo Swinney decided the Russell Athletic Bowl wasn’t worth risking a potential All-American’s career over, so the surgery date was moved up. This leaves Clemson with senior Cole Stoudt, an on-again/off-again signal caller who actually finished the regular season as the club’s leading passer. Stoudt began the season as the starter but somehow got worse as the season progressed, and by November he could barely complete a pass against ACC defenses. That’s not an exaggeration. Stoudt went a combined 4-of-13 for 16 yards with four interceptions against Georgia Tech and South Carolina.
On the other sideline, Oklahoma is going through the opposite situation. Trevor Knight is set to return after leaving the Sooners’ 48-14 loss to Baylor with transient quadriplegia. Freshman Cody Thomas replaced Knight and completed 23-of-50 passes for 292 yards with two touchdowns and three picks in two games and change running the Sooners’ offense. And, really, Thomas’ running of the Sooners offense was simply throwing the ball to give Samaje Perine a rest from running over defenders who happened to be in front of him. The FBS single-game rushing record holder carried 85 times for 791 yards and 10 touchdowns since that Baylor loss, but left the Oklahoma State game early with a sprained ankle. In a related story, Oklahoma’s offense sputtered toward the end what turned out to be a horrific loss to Oklahoma State in the regular season finale.
Finally, the defensive coordinators. Brent Venables was an original member of Bob Stoops’ staff at Oklahoma, coming aboard as co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach working with co-defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Mike Stoops. When Mike Stoops landed the Arizona job in 2004, Venables took sole control of the Sooners’ defense and ran it aplomb. But when Stoops was canned at Arizona, he returned to Oklahoma and all of a sudden Venables was off to Clemson. In the three seasons since, Clemson has fielded a better defense than Oklahoma. Oklahoma has ranked 78th, 52nd and 33rd in yards per play allowed under Stoops, while Clemson has placed 69th, 23rd and first under Venables.
All in all, the Russell Athletic Bowl sets up to be an evenly matched game. Do you like Oklahoma with a healthy Perine and a returned Knight against one of the nation’s best defenses, or a shaky Stoudt playing without Chad Morris against a mediocre Oklahoma defense?
THE PREDICTION: Oklahoma 24, Clemson 21