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Watson, No. 1 Tigers to play No. 4 Oklahoma in College Football Playoff semifinal
Gainesville High grad leads unbeaten Tigers (13-0) to Orange Bowl bid
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson celebrates after Clemson defeated North Carolina 45-37 in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in Charlotte, N.C., early Sunday. - photo by Gerry Broome

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Another year, another Clemson vs. Oklahoma bowl game.

Only this time, the stakes are immeasurably higher than they were at this time last year.

Clemson (13-0, No. 1 CFP) will meet Oklahoma (11-1, No. 4 CFP) in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31, one of the two semifinal games in this season’s College Football Playoff. It’s a rematch of last season’s Russell Athletic Bowl, a 40-6 romp for the Tigers that served as a springboard of sorts on the way for Dabo Swinney’s team to be the last unbeaten club at the FBS level this season.

And now the question is if the Tigers can finish the job.

“We set out Aug. 3 to try to win ‘em all,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN on its CFP selection broadcast. “We stayed focused, we stayed the course, we stayed committed to our mentality and our preparation each and every week. Our leadership was phenomenal. We weren’t always pretty but championship teams find ways to win, and that’s what this team has done time and time again.”

Clemson outscored opponents 500-263 this season, and though the Tigers were tested at times they never trailed in a fourth quarter. The Tigers wrapped up their spot with a 45-37 win over North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game on Saturday night, the team’s 16th consecutive win going back to last season.

“Oklahoma is a tremendous team,” Swinney said.

The Tigers are well-versed in how to get around Sun Life Stadium, and embarrassed Miami 58-0 earlier this season on the same field they’ll see for the bowl game.

But no team has been to the Orange Bowl more than Oklahoma.

The Sooners — outright winners of the Big 12 title, their ninth in 17 seasons under coach Bob Stoops — are extending their record by heading to the Orange for the 19th time. Oklahoma was thought to be doomed by a midseason loss to Texas, but won seven straight by a combined score of 364-136 to secure their spot in the CFP mix.

“I don’t think any of it is about getting teams back,” Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez said, when asked about the rematch with Clemson. “The ultimate motivation right now is winning a national championship.”

Oklahoma fell one spot in the final CFP rankings from No. 3 to No. 4, leapfrogged by Big Ten champion Michigan State.

And while that might have seemed puzzling to some, it ultimately didn’t matter in that the Sooners are one of the four teams left with a chance to win it all.

“Last year was last year,” Oklahoma wide receiver Sterling Shepard told ESPN on its selection show. “We have to put that behind us. We know we’re playing a good team.”

Some other things to know going into the Oklahoma-Clemson matchup:

SERIES HISTORY: This will be the fifth meeting between the schools, the series split 2-2 to this point. Oklahoma won regular-season games in 1963 and 1972; Clemson won bowl matchups in 1989 and then again last season.

QUARTERBACK STARS: That Russell Athletic Bowl matchup last season was played without both Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, a Gainesville High grad, (injured) and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (sitting out to satisfy transfer rules) on the field. They’ll be asked to be among the stars of the show on New Year’s Eve. Mayfield threw 35 touchdown passes this season, Watson passed for 30. Both ranked among the top nine nationally in that department.

AIRTIGHT DEFENSE: Maybe it’s a byproduct of the teams facing Watson and Mayfield in practice every day, but good luck passing against either of these clubs. Both finished among the nation’s leaders in passer rating defense, with Clemson at No. 7 and Oklahoma at No. 12. Plus, both defenses have logged 38 sacks so far this season.

500 CLUB: Both teams have already scored 500 points this season. Clemson is at exactly 500, putting the Tigers at 38.5 points per game. Oklahoma has been even more prolific, the Sooners’ 549 points working out to 45.8 per game.

TURNOVER WATCH: Clemson has gotten here despite actually losing the turnover battle this season, giving the ball away 25 times while forcing 23. Oklahoma has been one of the nation’s best in turnover margin, with 26 takeaways opposed to 16 giveaways. And during the Sooners’ seven-game winning streak they’ve been even better, with 19 takeaways against just seven turnovers.

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