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The key to Clemson mauling OU will also give the Tigers a chance against Bama

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Clemson should not be this good up front, not after what it lost in the offseason and during this game. But it is.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

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You can find "Huh huh, Big Game Bob Stoops strikes again" jokes on the Internet (or, I'm sure, the radio) if you want. But it would be a shame to take too much away from Oklahoma because of the Sooners' 37-17 defeat against Clemson in the Orange Bowl semifinal. OU's problem was that it was the third-best team playing against a better team.

There's no shame in being the third-best team. That was what our Football Outsiders numbers said Oklahoma definitively was, and that's what the Sooners were proved to be in Miami on Thursday.

F/+ ratings after the 2015 regular season
Team Conference Rec F/+ Rk Last Wk Change S&P+ Rk FEI Rk
Alabama SEC 12-1 64.5% 1 1 0 28.7 1 0.285 1
Clemson ACC 13-0 59.0% 2 2 0 26.4 2 0.260 2
Oklahoma Big 12 11-1 55.7% 3 3 0 24.6 3 0.249 3

In an injury-clouded affair -- Clemson lost star defensive end Shaq Lawson early, and Oklahoma saw both primary running backs, Samaje Perine (ankle) and Joe Mixon (head) leave in the second half before quarterback Baker Mayfield joined them late -- Clemson had more depth and firepower than a strong Sooner squad.

The difference was obvious from the start, but it took a while for the scoreboard to show it.

Only one team could run the ball, and it wasn't the Sooners. Before they left, Perine and Mixon combined to gain 62 yards in 18 carries. Meanwhile, running back Wayne Gallman and quarterback Deshaun Watson combined for 49 rushes (not including one sack) and 294 yards. OU was rendered one-dimensional, and Clemson's one dimension was so good that it didn't even matter that it was taking the passing game a while to get rolling.

Clemson kept stalling out before the end zone, however. The story of the first half was missed chances. Clemson generated two more scoring opportunities (first downs inside the opponent's 40) than OU in the first but trailed, 17-16, because the Sooners were far more effective at finishing drives. Their three scoring chances resulted in two touchdowns and a field goal; Clemson's resulted in three field goals, a touchdown, and a late-Q2 interception.

One of two things can happen when you're trailing despite creating more chances: Either you continue to create more chances and pull away, or the tide turns, and the more successful opponent takes over. Clemson's advantages in the trenches suggested the former, but you never know that it will happen until it does.

The ending was rather unceremonious.

Clemson took the lead on the first drive of the second half, and the Tigers stuffed Perine on fourth-and-1 from the Clemson 30 a few minutes later. A 35-yard touchdown pass from Watson to Hunter Renfrow completed the demoralization and gave CU a 30-17 lead. From there, the outcome seemed obvious.

Mayfield finished with 311 passing yards but threw two costly second-half picks and took five sacks. He was able to match Watson's output -- yards per pass attempt: Mayfield 5.9, Watson 5.8 -- but the game was decided on the ground and in the trenches. That's where OU was done in against Texas earlier in the year, and as my friend Allen Kenney noted, that's where the Sooners still have the most room to grow.

So let's talk for a moment about how incredible Clemson's line play has been.

Let's flash back to my 2015 offseason Clemson preview. Here's what the Tigers lost on the offensive line.

Player Pos. Career Starts
David Beasley LG 30
Kalon Davis RT 21
Isaiah Battle LT 15
Reid Webster RG 13

And here's what they lost on the defensive line.

Name Pos GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Grady Jarrett DT 13 35.5 5.4% 10.0 1.5 0 0 2 0
Vic Beasley DE 13 31.0 4.7% 21.5 12.0 0 3 2 1
Corey Crawford DE 11 21.0 3.2% 6.5 2.0 0 1 0 0
DeShawn Williams DT 13 19.0 2.9% 8.0 3.0 0 1 0 0
Josh Watson DT 13 17.5 2.7% 3.5 1.5 0 4 1 0
Tavaris Barnes DE 13 12.5 1.9% 5.0 3.0 0 1 1 0
Ebenezer Ogundeko DE 7 2.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0


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Behold the power of recruiting and development. Even with all of these losses, and even with Lawson getting hurt, Clemson was able to lean on players like Kevin Dodd (3.5 tackles for loss, one sack), former blue-chipper Carlos Watkins (one sack), senior D.J. Reader (1.5 sacks), four-star sophomore Scott Pagano, and four-star freshman Austin Bryant (0.5 sacks).

Clemson had nine tackles for loss and five sacks, stuffing Perine and harassing Mayfield. And though OU's secondary was doing reasonably well against Clemson's receivers, the rebuilt Tigers offensive line was able to craft a similar advantage.

We'll see if Clemson has the skill position weapons to dent an absurd Alabama defense. We'll see if Clemson's secondary is able to do more damage to Alabama's receiving corps (especially Calvin Ridley) than Michigan State could in the Cotton Bowl.

But one thing is certain as we head toward the national title game in Arizona: Clemson is the one team in the country that can trade some blows with the Crimson Tide in the trenches. It will give the Tigers a legitimate chance to take home their first national title in 34 years.

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