MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — No one will be tuning in to the Orange Bowl looking for a defensive slugfest.
Clemson’s Deshaun Watkins is used to lighting up the scoreboard. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield has shredded one helpless defense after another.
“People love seeing high-powered offenses and guys slinging the ball around,” said Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware, sounding a bit gloomy as he looked ahead to Thursday’s national semifinal game. “The viewers want to see Deshaun throw for 600 yards and Mayfield throw for 600 yards.”
While no one is ready to bury the ol’ adage that defense wins championships, it needs a bit of tweaking with these teams.
Clemson (13-0) gave up more than 30 points in its last two games, but Watson & Co. made sure it didn’t ruin the perfect season. The Tigers held off South Carolina 37-32 in their regular-season finale, then survived a 45-37 track meet with North Carolina to capture the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
Oklahoma (11-1) followed a similar path to the College Football Playoff. The Sooners gave up at least 20 points in eight games, more than 30 a couple of times. It cost them only once — an upset loss to Texas.
Despite all those shaky performances, neither defense is lacking bravado.
“I know what we’ve got,” Oklahoma outside linebacker Eric Striker said Tuesday during media day at Sun Life Stadium. “We know what it takes to win the game. One thing about the media: They’ve got to talk, they’ve got to come up with stuff.”
The media has nothing to do with the national statistics, which have Oklahoma outside the top 20 in all four major defensive categories. The Sooners are tied for 22nd in points allowed (20.8 per game).
Clemson has been stingy when it comes to defending the pass, but a bit leaky against the run. The Tigers are giving 20.2 points a game, tied for 18th nationally.
“It’s about getting the W,” Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander said. “It ain’t always gonna be pretty. When I hear people say, ‘Aww, you guys gave up all these points,’ I’m like, ‘We’re the number one team in the country.’ Everybody is gonna play us hard, have tricks, do everything they can. For the last six weeks, everybody has been throwing everything at us, everything they’ve got.”
Only two teams in the last 30 years have won national titles while allowing at least 20 points a game, but both have come in the last five seasons — mirroring the game’s ever-increasing emphasis on offense.
Ohio State won the championship a year ago despite giving up 22.0 points per contest, ranking 26th nationally. Cam Newton-led Auburn finished No. 1 in 2010 while surrendering an average of 24.1 points, which placed a mediocre 53rd in the national rankings.
Of course, it’s still a better bet that a team will claim the title by stopping the other team from scoring. Between Auburn and Ohio State, three straight national champions (Alabama in 2011-12, Florida State in 2013) ranked No. 1 in points allowed. In the last three decades, just five other champions finished higher than 10th nationally in points allowed.
None of that seems to faze these teams.
“We’ve very flexible on defense,” Alexander said. “What we’re able to do on defense, nobody can match that. There are defensive coordinators in college football who are like, ‘Man, I wish I could be coaching you guys.’ We’ve got a lot of great players.”
Playing in the run-and-gun Big 12 Conference, Oklahoma is used to facing dynamic offenses.
This might be their toughest challenge yet. Start with Watson, a Heisman Trophy finalist and probably the most dangerous two-way threat in the country. He can beat you with his arm (3,512 yards passing, 30 touchdowns), he can beat you with his legs (887 yards rushing, 11 TDs). He has weapons all around, including running back Wayne Gallman (1,332 yards rushing, 10 TDs) and nine players with double-figure receptions led by Artavis Scott (84 receptions).
Mayfield and the Sooners are just as daunting. The junior quarterback has passed for 3,389 yards with 35 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He, too, can take off and run, which led Boulware to describe him as “kind of Manzielesque” — a nod to former Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel. Three Oklahoma receivers have hauled in more than 40 passes, while Samaje Perine has rushed for 1,291 yards and 15 TDs.
Hard to see this being a defensive struggle.
That’s not to say it won’t come down to a big defensive play.
“Whenever you’ve got two great offenses,” said Clemson linebacker B.J. Goodson, “it’s always gonna be about who’s making big stops in big moments.”
Michigan State’s 3-stars
vs. Bama’s 5-stars
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Shilique Calhoun was a basketball player at heart until his senior season in high school. The fifth-year senior arrived at Michigan State as a three-star recruit and eventually blossomed into one of the best defensive ends in college football.
Cam Robinson came to Alabama in 2014 as the No. 1 recruit in the country and started at left tackle as a freshman. If the sophomore keeps progressing, one more season with the Crimson Tide should be enough to make him a first-round NFL draft pick.
Calhoun vs. Robinson is Michigan State vs. Alabama in a nutshell. The three-star vs. the five-star. The hidden gem vs. crown jewel.
The third-ranked Spartans (12-1) face the No. 2 Crimson Tide (12-1) in the College Football Playoff semifinals Thursday night at the home of the Dallas Cowboys.
The rise of the Spartans under Mark Dantonio has been all about exceeding expectations and player development.
In the last five years, Michigan State has never had a recruiting class ranked better than 22nd in the nation, according to the composite rankings compiled by 247 Sports. The Spartans’ average class rank in that time is 29th. By comparison, Alabama has had the No. 1 class in the country each of the last five seasons under coach Nick Saban.
“When it comes down to it stars don’t matter for anything,” Michigan State senior offensive tackle Jack Conklin said Tuesday during Cotton Bowl media day at AT&T Stadium. “You can’t tell with an 18-year-old kid how he’s going to play when he’s 21 or how he’s going to develop. If he’s going to be able to take coaching.”
Conklin, from Plainwell, Michigan, has gone from walk-on to a potential first-round NFL draft pick during his four seasons at Michigan State. Star quarterback Connor Cook was a three-star from Hinkley, Ohio, whose other scholarship offers were from Mid-American Conference schools.
It’s become a familiar story in East Lansing, Michigan, during Dantonio’s nine seasons leading the Spartans.
“Le’Veon Bell or Darqueze Dennard, a lot of people didn’t want them but our coaches saw something,” Conklin said, referring to two NFL players.
The Spartans love being overlooked. They view themselves as a team that cannot be outworked because no team has worked harder to get here.
“I always joke with Riley (Bullough) and Jon (Reschke), we work in the weight room to get the bodies we have, we weren’t just born with them,” said linebacker Darien Harris, a three-star recruit.
Three stars put a player way down the list in a typical Alabama recruiting class. The Crimson Tide has 18 five-star recruits on its roster, including Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, defensive end A’Shawn Robinson and linebacker Reuben Foster.
The only player on Michigan State’s roster who was a consensus five-star recruit is sophomore defensive tackle Malik McDowell.
All that talent is enviable, but it does come with some issues to be managed by Saban and his staff.
“Even though a great expectation is created for them by (recruiting rankings) . we try to emphasize development, that football is a developmental game,” Saban said. “You’re going to be a better player three years from now than when you’re a freshman. You need to focus on what you can do to be the best player you can be, and that’s what we’re going to help you do.”
Over the last five years, Alabama has had 37 players selected in the NFL draft, more than any other school.
While it seems that every top recruit wants to play for Alabama, Saban’s process is not for everybody.
“A lot of these kids when they’re looking at a school they want to go right where they’re going to play the most. Competition scares them away,” said freshman quarterback Blake Barnett, a five-star recruit who has spent this season playing on the scout team.
Stepping onto the practice field with the Crimson Tide for the first time can be both overwhelming and humbling.
“I definitely think it takes a certain type of person. To come here and compete with these guys. It’s not guaranteed that every guy is going to start as a freshman or come in and have an impact as a freshman,” Cam Robinson said. “Unless you’re willing to work for everything that you want and bust your butt day in and day out, this place is not for you.”
Cam Robinson was one of those players that had the right stuff. The 6-foot-7, 324-pound tackle has been on the radar of recruiters since he was a freshman in high school back in Monroe, Louisiana.
For Calhoun, the basketball player from New Jersey who didn’t even pay attention to college football in high school, the one-on-one matchup with Robinson is another chance to show how far both he and Michigan State have come.
“I don’t feel based off of my stars or his stars I need to make him look bad,” Calhoun said. “I just feel a need to go out and compete.”