MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — For Clemson, 40-6 is just a score in an ancient record book that has no bearing on its Orange Bowl meeting with Oklahoma on New Year’s Eve for the right to advance to the College Football Playoff championship game.
But for Oklahoma, the memory of its 40-6 loss to the Tigers in something called the Russell Athletic Bowl just over a year ago in Orlando is a log that burns brightly on the mighty fire of redemption that has fueled the Sooners’ run to the CFP semifinals.
If that resounding victory served as a launchpad for Clemson’s 13-0 season and No. 1 national ranking, the short end of that stick was the catalyst for sweeping changes at OU, where many critics declared that Bob Stoops’ 17-season reign as the longest-tenured major college football coach in America alongside Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz was on the verge of collapse.
Stoops fired co-offensive coordinators Jay Norvell and Josh Heupel and replaced them with a new spread offensive system run by incoming coordinator Lincoln Riley, saw two other assistants either retire or leave, hired two assistants to replace them and shifted responsibilities so that eight of nine assistants now are in different roles. Stoops also made a huge change at quarterback when he named Baker Mayfield to start over incumbent Trevor Knight.
The upheaval had the desired effect as the Sooners won the Big 12 title with an 11-1 record one season after going 8-5, and OU supporters once again are bowing down to Stoops. “The program wasn’t nearly as weak as people wanted to say it was a year ago,” Stoops said on Wednesday. “I had to remind everyone we had just won the Sugar Bowl and were sixth in the country the year before.
“You get a few things that don’t go your way, and you go 8-5. That isn’t acceptable to me, either. But the players took it to heart. They had some meetings [about how] they were going to hold each other accountable, and it’s made a difference.”
That sense of accountability includes a determination to atone for their no-show against Clemson, especially now with so much at stake. Wide receiver Sterling Shepard said the Sooners have watched game tape of their 40-6 loss over and over as a means of remembering that sick feeling so they never repeat it. Call it “Clockwork Orange Bowl,” their version of the behavioral conditioning scene in the Stanley Kubrick classic.
Clemson’s players say they haven’t watched that film because it bears no relation to the current Oklahoma team that has a different offensive system and a different quarterback. Never mind that the Tigers have improved at quarterback with Deshaun Watson, who was injured a year ago, and will be facing an OU defense that returns nine of the same 11 starters who were destroyed in Orlando.
“They have no reason to watch the film,” Shepard said. “They completely smashed us.
“For us, we use it as a motivation factor. We watch it every day in a team setting just to keep that bad feeling fresh in our minds. I mean, I get butterflies watching it every time. Sometimes, I watch it on my own just to get it in my head and remember that feeling. I’m a senior, so I want to go out with a bang.”
Some coaches might have filed the 40-6 game tape in the trash can or burned it, but Stoops embraced it. “This is what we experienced, this is what we did,” he said. “This is how I coached, this is how you played. It isn’t acceptable. This isn’t Oklahoma football the way we need to play, so we need to make sure that we perform better than this.”
The uniforms and many of the names will be the same, but Clemson knows this isn’t the Russell Athletic Bowl. It’s the Orange Bowl, and that’s a different Oklahoma team coming out of the tunnel.