It’s a point that will be belabored leading up to Thursday’s Orange Bowl, but it is so glaring it’s deserving of the reiteration: Around this time last year, Clemson battered Oklahoma 40-6.
Much more will be at stake than a Russell Athletic Bowl title this time when the two proud programs meet in a College Football Playoff semifinal. No. 4 Oklahoma, champions of the Big 12, enters 11-1 compared to the 8-5 it finished in 2014 after the meltdown against Clemson, now the top-ranked team in the country at a spotless 13-0 as Atlantic Coast Conference champs.
The “different year, different team” resiliency cliché often abused in such rematch-type scenarios is actually rather accurate for the Sooners coming into the 4 p.m. New Year’s Eve kickoff at Sun Life Stadium — and especially true for the offense that could only muster six garbage-time points in the fourth quarter the last time it faced the Tigers after falling behind by 40 points.
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Last year, quarterback Baker Mayfield was on the sideline watching, forced to sit out because of NCAA transfer rules. Last year, offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley was drawing up plays at East Carolina.
Now, with the two in unison, Oklahoma has increased its passing yardage by more than 1,000 over last season’s total and has scored nearly 10 points per game more for a whopping 45.8 — third-best in the nation. The offense has been particularly efficient since the Sooners’ lone blemish of the season — a 24-17 loss to rival Texas on Oct. 10.
Mayfield’s 35 touchdowns to five interceptions while rushing for seven more scores and completing 68.6 percent of his passes has a lot to do with the vast improvement.
“I’m in a spot where now I can actually help my team out on the field and not just from the sideline,” said Mayfield, a 6-1, 209-pound junior who recalls helplessly trying to rally his Sooners as the last meeting with Clemson turned sour.
Riley has brought with him the “Air Raid” spread attack he learned under Mike Leach at Texas Tech, where he got his coaching start. As opposed to Leach’s all-out aerial style, Riley has been able to incorporate the running game with sophomore Samaje Perine and freshman Joe Mixon averaging more than 6 yards per carry. Mayfield has even been able to provide 420 yards on the ground.
On top of tossing just five interceptions, Mayfield hasn’t lost a fumble.
“For as many times as he touches the ball and is a factor in the play in as many plays as we’ve played this year, to only have five turnovers is pretty impressive,” Riley said.
Mayfield attributes his success in decision-making and limiting turnovers to Riley.
“He’s taught me that I can be aggressive but take care of the ball still — just keep it in our hands and eliminate negative plays,” Mayfield said.
It would take something significant to fluster Mayfield, who has won two quarterback competitions as a walk-on, including a three-player race at the start of this season — he also won the job at Texas Tech as a freshman before transferring. But on Monday, Mayfield still appeared bitter about the TV commentary from that bowl loss last season.
“We still watch that tape. That’s motivation for us. We still listen to the commentating of the broadcast and how disrespectful it was,” said Mayfield, recalling that the commentators dubbed OU a scout team against varsity Clemson, said the Sooners didn’t want to be there and that it was an embarrassment for coach Bob Stoops.
Offensive lineman Ty Darlington took a different stance when asked about the criticism but understood Mayfield’s frustration.
“I mean, I’m not going to say it was uncalled for because we very much deserved a lot of it, but it was pretty critical. I was surprised,” he said.
Mayfield’s comments in a session with the media that also had him badmouthing TCU because the Horned Frogs did not offer him a scholarship and “hung me out to dry right before Signing Day” even stirred up some conversation on ESPN about his focus coming into the game.
The best way to flip the publicity to positive for Mayfield and the Sooners — win on Thursday.