To say the Sooners have been fortunate in the quarterbacks they've faced this season would be an understatement.
In consecutive games en route to a Big 12 championship, OU played Baylor in true freshman Jarrett Stidham's second start, drew a Trevone Boykin-less TCU, and finished against an Oklahoma State whose starting QB, Mason Rudolph, could barely play.
This meant missing the three highest-rated starting quarterbacks at their best on OU's entire schedule.
In the first round of the Playoff, they'll face Clemson's Deshaun Watson, a healthy Heisman finalist. He's the leader of the nation's only undefeated team and the country's No. 3 passing offense. That should prove to be quite the step up in competition for the resurgent Sooner defense, and how they look to stop the athletic Tiger should dictate much of the game.
The Clemson offense has evolved somewhat from the Chad Morris smashmouth spread that defined the team over the last few years, with Morris gone to SMU. It's evolved to suit Watson's underrated ability as a passer in the quick game. The Tigers have very versatile personnel, and they often vacillate between two primary looks on offense without having to sub players out.
The first is a power-run approach, in which Jordan Leggett lines up as an in-line tight end or H-back and helps move bodies at the point of attack.
From these sets, Clemson will run inside zone or power and keep the defense from outnumbering it with DBs, either by using Watson as a runner (887 rushing yards, 5.4 per carry, team-high 11 rushing TDs), throwing out wide to a burner like Artavis Scott (805 receiving yards), or throwing deep to a bigger target like the 6'3 Charone Peake or 6'2 Deon Cain.
The Tigers' ability to attack on the perimeter with Watson's legs, Wayne Gallman sweeps or screens is pretty effective.
But they are even better on offense in empty or four-wide formations, such as this one.
The Tigers are at their best when spreading the field like this, even more so with the RB also lined up out wide. This combines quick passing concepts on the perimeter with the threat of Watson pulling the ball down on a QB draw.
As evidenced by his high completion percentage (No. 3 in the country at 69.5) and relatively modest yards per attempt (No. 22 at 8.5), Watson is at his best throwing slants and outs into the spacing afforded by these formations and the threat of his legs.
The Tigers get a ton of mileage out of Watson throwing double slants and y-stick route combinations. They'll often combine them, with one on each side of the field.
Here, they combine both with run blocking in order to suck in the defenders and mitigate the explosive Florida State pass rush, with backside slant to the boundary side (Watson's right) and the y-stick combo to the field (left).
Watson makes his decision on which side to read based on whether he sees FSU's safeties rotate into a single-high coverage or two-deep coverage.
If there are two safeties deep, the y-stick combo should get someone open against outnumbered underneath coverage. The innermost receiver should be able to find space between the linebacker and nickel defender.
Instead, FSU drops into a single-high safety coverage, which means the routes to the left will be covered. But the slant on the right side has a good chance to get open without a linebacker helping the corner. Watch the play, which also includes a run fake:
These sets are also where Watson is most dangerous as a runner, which could be essential, as the numbers say OU's defense has an advantage when Clemson runs.
He can run draws if the defense widens out to take away these quick concepts or throw screens. In addition to play action, they'll use motion to clear up the picture for Watson and allow him to throw strikes or take off into open grass, like in this touchdown in the ACC Championship:
This ability to combine quick game proficiency with great athleticism has been the foundation of some of college football's best offenses, and the horizontal stress it puts on a defense is intense.
The Sooners have been well prepared to try and handle Clemson's scheme.
While they haven't had to face anyone quite as good as Watson (Boykin would have been an excellent facsimile), the rigors of planning for Big 12 spread offenses every week ensure OU knows what it's getting into. Without adjusting for quarterback injuries, OU has the country's No. 6 passing defense.
Besides system-perfect quarterback Baker Mayfield, a primary reason the Sooners won the Big 12 was having one of their most athletic and versatile defenses in years. They have a lineup designed to bust spread-to-run teams like Clemson: their 3-4 package.
The pieces in the Sooner defensive backfield fit thanks to the emergence of outside linebacker Devante Bond and strong safety Steven Parker. Bond is another rangy backer who can rush the edge and allow Eric Striker to play in space as the field-side outside linebacker. Parker is a versatile DB who can play man coverage. That allows Striker to blitz off the edge without leaving a slot receiver in a favorable matchup against a slowpoke safety.
Even against Clemson's wide-open formations, the Sooners can use this package to take away quick throws outside and encourage Watson to run against three or four linebackers playing shallow zone. OSU's J.W. Walsh attempts that here:
The brilliance of the Sooners' scheme is that their outside linebackers can adjust to run or pass after the snap. Their interior DL, who play zero and 4i techniques, can clog the middle lanes and keep the linebackers free to run to the ball.
In this example, they're playing cover 2 (two deep defensive backs) instead of their normal cover 3, and despite only having five defenders in the box, they are able to account for all of the gaps against a run/pass option by Oklahoma State:
The QB sends a RB (H) wide before the snap and can throw to him if the strongside linebacker (S) doesn't get wide. After the snap, the QB reads the middle linebacker (M); if he attacks the run to make sure the defense has the gaps up front accounted for, the QB can pull the ball on a traditional zone read run. If the MLB stays wide to stop the QB run, the QB hands off to the running back (R) on a basic inside zone.
The problem is that OU's ends (E) are tasked with filling the guard-tackle gaps, so the Sooners don't need two inside linebackers in the box. In the clip above, the QB read the play perfectly, but OU had good athletes in position to stop every option.
The Sooners have the right system and athletes to match up with Clemson's spread. OU can attack with multiple schemes and alignments that are sound and practiced against this style of offense.
OU hasn't had to stop a QB of Watson's quality, but Clemson hasn't faced a top anti-spread defense quite like this, either.