OKLAHOMA SOONERS (8-4) vs. CLEMSON TIGERS (9-3)
DEC. 29, 5:30 P.M. ET, FLORIDA CITRUS BOWL, ORLANDO, FLA. (ESPN)
Season highlights: This season could be remembered for the excellence of Samaje Perine and Sterling Shepard. Perine, the true freshman running back, had 200 rushing yards or more on three occasions, including his FBS-record 427 yards against Kansas. Shepard, a junior receiver, was a game-breaking target with five 100-yard games before a groin injury slowed him late in the season. Wins over West Virginia and Texas showed the potential this team had despite its roller-coaster season, and defensive standouts Jordan Phillips and Eric Striker had special moments.
Season lowlights: OU’s Bedlam loss to Oklahoma State on the regular season’s final day was a glimpse at the Sooners’ struggles in 2014. Miscues and mistakes became all too common for Bob Stoops’ team in losses to TCU, Baylor and Kansas State, and the Sooners capped it off by surrendering a two-touchdown lead in the final five minutes of Bedlam before losing in overtime. OU stumbles into the postseason with a beat-up roster and minimal momentum.
Player to watch: Perine has become the Sooners’ symbol of hope for the future with his vision, physical running style and toughness. At 5-foot-11, 243 pounds with surprising speed, he is a joy to watch. But Striker has the ability to leave blockers grasping at air with his quickness and speed off the edge in pass-rush situations. The junior linebacker is a terror for every quarterback he faces, amassing a team-high 7.5 sacks.
Motivation factor: When is the last time the Sooners looked like one of the best teams in college football? Or the Big 12 for that matter? OU needs to get healthy, first and foremost, then play well in the bowl game to finish its 2014 season strong. Otherwise it will enter the offseason with plenty of questions and not many answers.
-- Brandon Chatmon
Season highlights: Deshaun Watson's emergence against Florida State helped Tigers fans find a silver lining in a tough loss. A week later, the freshman quarterback threw six touchdown passes against North Carolina. Watson was one of a number of freshmen to step up for Clemson this season, and the youth movement provided the bulk of the Tigers’ offensive highlights. The season’s high-water mark, however, likely came against South Carolina, when Watson and fellow freshman Artavis Scott connected for two touchdowns to help the Tigers finally knock off their in-state rival for the first time since 2008.
Season lowlights: The Tigers knew from the outset that September would make or break their season. Unfortunately for them, it was the latter. The offense couldn’t muster much of anything with Cole Stoudt at the helm in the second half against Georgia, and the Bulldogs’ ground game eventually overwhelmed Clemson’s staunch D. Three weeks later, Clemson had Florida State on the ropes but couldn’t finish the job, coughing up a late fumble that allowed FSU to win in overtime. An injury to Watson against Georgia Tech keyed Clemson’s third loss in what was without question the Tigers’ ugliest performance, a 28-6 pounding at the hands of the Yellow Jackets.
Players to watch: Watson is set to start at quarterback for Clemson in spite of what coach Dabo Swinney called a torn ACL. Tailback Wayne Gallman is coming off his best game of the season against South Carolina. The defense is one of the best in the nation, led by linemen Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett. Perhaps the most intriguing Tigers to watch, however, will be new offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott, who will be in charge of the offense for the first time after Chad Morris left to become head coach at SMU.
Motivation factor: That Watson continues to play in spite of the knee injury should be the best indication that Clemson desperately wants to win this bowl game and get to the 10-win plateau for the fourth straight season. Beyond ending the season with a nice round number in the win column, it’s also the final game in the careers of Beasley, Jarrett, Stephone Anthony, Robert Smith and a host of other seniors who have built Clemson’s defense from a national joke in 2011 to the No. 1 unit in the nation in 2014. The Tigers surely want to send their veteran leaders out on a high note.
-- David M. Hale