Oklahoma enters Saturday's game at TCU with an undefeated record through four games and rankings that suggest the Sooners are one of the five best teams in the country. Yet, linemakers have installed OU as a mere five-point favorite over Texas Christian, a sign that the Sooners might have more of a struggle on their hands than Joe Six-Pack would expect.
Even though TCU has struggled since joining the Big 12, the Horned Frogs remain a tough out. Gary Patterson's 2014 squad plays the same filthy defense that you'd expect from his team, but he hired Air Raid acolytes Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham in the offseason to soup up a stagnant offense. It appears to be working so far as TCU is averaging 44 points per game this year.
Here are five keys that will determine the outcome of what looks to be a stiff test for OU.
1. Tackling in space.
Cumbie and Meacham have added some bells and whistles to the TCU O. Essentially, however, TCU is looking to spread the field and set up easy throws for quarterback Trevone Boykin to his underrated receivers. Against Minnesota, I counted 22 of Boykin's 47 attempts as being within five yards of the line of scrimmage. That had a lot to do with a relatively inefficient output of 5.6 yards per attempt.
Even so, receiving threats such as Kolby Listenbee and Josh Doctson will make defenses pay for getting sloppy. Expect TCU to test Zack Sanchez, in particular, hoping to exploit the star cornerback's bum shoulder and occasional lapses in technique.
TCU's wideouts will get the chance to make plays off quick throws. Limiting yards after the catch will be of utmost importance to the Sooners.
2. Getting TCU to third down.
A running back in a previous life, Boykin has handled the transition to TCU's new offensive scheme about as well as could be expected. He handles the quick throws with aplomb.
The Horned Frogs rank 97th nationally in 3rd down conversions in large part because Boykin doesn't have nearly the same acumen when it comes to hitting deeper passes. He completed 5 of his 10 attempts in the range of 10-15 yards versus Minnesota. Over 15 yards, he was just 1 of 9.
If Boykin and the O are facing third down time and again, that bodes well for the Sooners. (Note: TCU's left tackle will have a really tough time dealing with OU's pass rushers in clear passing situations.)
3. OU throwing on early downs.
So far this season, opponents have pinned their hopes on making Trevor Knight beat them. In practice, that entails daring OU to throw against a stacked box, especially on early downs.
Knight has done a pretty good job of using those opportunities to make the D pay. He has completed 33 of 54 attempts (61 percent) on first down this season. Nineteen of those 33 completions have yielded 10 yards or more.
Assuming TCU puts eight and nine defenders in the box on first down, Knight could be looking to take shots down the field against a predictably strong Horned Frog secondary.
4. Big receivers.
OU has relied almost exclusively on a group of three wideouts this season – Sterling Shepard, K.J. Young and Durron Neal. If Knight is looking down the field more often this week, taller receivers such as Jordan Smallwood and Jeffrey Mead could take on a larger role in the offense.
5. See how Knight runs?
Both the local media and many members of Sooner Nation have developed a fixation with Trevor Knight's wheels. Or, more appropriately, the wheels that OU's coaches have been keeping in the garage.
The Sooners finally have a QB who can do some damage with his feet, but Bob Stoops clearly wants to save that for when his team really needs it. It's tough to argue with him, seeing as the ground game has churned out yardage with minimal input from OU's signal caller.
TCU's D doesn't really have any noticeable holes. We might see more of Knight running the zone read this week if OU can't find a weak spot or two.