CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Brent Venables won’t ever forget his fear boarding the plane for Clemson, wondering if trading in his successful life as Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator for an uncertain challenge with the Tigers was the right move.
“I was scared for my family and scared for myself professionally,” said Venables, the Tigers’ fourth-year defensive coordinator. “That’s Oklahoma. That’s not like a stepping-stone job.”
Switching sides in college football is rarely pain free, especially when leave friends and players who you pledged to coach during their careers at your old job.
Venables will feel that twinge once again when No. 1 Clemson (13-0) faces No. 4 Oklahoma (11-1) in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve for a spot in the national championship game.
These teams met last postseason, Clemson pounding Oklahoma 40-6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Venables would rather not face close friends in Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, Sooners defensive coordinator Mike Stoops — the head coach’s brother — for a second straight season, but understands programs striving to be the best must ultimately meet to settle things.
“I could certainly handle that,” he said.
That was not the case a season ago when Venables was clearly uncomfortable discussing Stoops and the Sooner players he helped recruit during his stay there. Stoops put Venables on his first staff in 1999 and a year later the duo celebrated Oklahoma’s last national championship.
This time, only one will leave victorious.
“We know what the stakes are out there,” Venables said.
Bob Stoops said last year’s meeting and this year’s matchup, win or lose, won’t alter their friendship or respect both have for each other.
“I’m excited for (Venables), happy for him that he and they have had so much success,” Stoops said. “Once you tee it and tee it off, that gets put aside for about four hours.”
The Tigers-Sooners winner will face either No. 2 Alabama or No. 3 Michigan State for college football’s biggest prize.
Venables is attempting to lock his players back into the work ethic they’ve showed much of the season in the first week of bowl practice.
Clemson ended last season as the country’s No. 1 defense — it limited Oklahoma to its fewest points and second fewest yards (275) in 2014 — and lost eight starters on the unit, including NFL first-round picks in defensive end Vic Beasley and linebacker Stephone Anthony.
Venables hoped his front-line starters could hold down the fort until the young backups got up to speed. Instead, Clemson’s defense took off strongly with several significant early performances.
It limited Notre Dame 1,000-yard runner C.J. Prosise to 50 yards and defensive tackle Carlos Watkins made the crucial late stop with the Irish looking to tie on a two-point conversion in Clemson’s 24-22 victory.
The second half of the season has been more of a struggle for the Tigers, who have allowed 27 points or more in four of their last six games after not giving up that many to any opponent in their first seven contests.
It was an issue for Clemson in the ACC championship game. The Tigers built a 19-point lead in the second half over North Carolina before needing to secure a second on-sides kick at the end to hold on, 45-37.
Venables said Clemson’s consistency to lock up opponents must improve.
“Jekyll and Hyde, I’m not sure what one I’m pulling for,” Venables said. “But I know I’m pulling for one and not the other.”
Still, the Tigers are seventh nationally in defense, allowing 295 yards a game.
“Most of the guys are playing to win and we’ve got a couple of guys playing not to lose, and it shows,” Venables said. “We’ve got to be better than that.”
Particularly against Oklahoma.
Venables shared some things last year about Oklahoma’s tendencies, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said it wasn’t anything the Tigers’ staff wouldn’t have picked up on film.
Stoops and his Oklahoma staff also used what they knew of Venables’ styles when game-planning for the Tigers.
Both sides say none of that matters this time because they played last year.
“The game has always been about the players,” Venables said, “and that’s something that won’t change this time.”