I gave my game-by-game picks for Oklahoma’s season over at Athlon, so you can read about them there. Instead, I’ll cap off my season preview articles with some general thoughts on this year’s team…
With apologies to Bill Parcells, you are rarely what your record says you are in college football. Whom you play and when and where you play them usually mean as much in the final win-loss tally as how good a team really is. Case in point: Probably the weakest team that OU has fielded in the last five years finished with the best record of that stretch and a BCS bowl win.
That’s part of what makes college football the best sport on the planet and probably the most maddening to follow as a fan. It also raises the possibility that the Sooners could have been a year ahead of schedule in making the College Football Playoff last season and that they are unlikely to see the final four this fall.
Put this OU team up against the 2015 outfit via some inexplicable hole in the space-time continuum, and I’m rolling with 2016 edition all day. The offensive line will be better. Same likely goes for the defensive line. Baker Mayfield will have an extra year of experience behind center. The secondary is among the best in the nation. The receiving corps has better depth. It wouldn’t shock me if Joe Mixon turns into the best offensive weapon in the Big 12.
At the same time, I see plenty of legitimate issues on the margins that call into question this team’s ability to put together a Playoff-type season.
Obviously, there are the typical injury concerns. Mayfield seems to be racking up concussions at an alarming rate, for example, and he hasn’t shown any indications that he will dial back his scrambling. Star defensive lineman Charles Walker has had trouble staying healthy throughout his career.
There are also nuances like the offense’s ability to convert on third and fourth down without Sterling Shepard in the mix. In 2015, the Sooners completed 49 passes on third and fourth downs that went for either a first down or a touchdown, and 17 of them went to the star wideout. On the flip side, will OU harass opposing passers on money downs with the same effectiveness now that Eric Striker and Charles Tapper are gone?
Those small questions don’t generate the same types of headlines as a defensive scheme change or a QB competition. They can add up to losses just the same.
All in all, the odds are against OU making a repeat appearance in the Playoff this season. That’s not a statement about the quality of the team or the health of the program. (Frankly, the Sooners’ rejuvenation under Bob Stoops has been pretty remarkable.) It’s a simple statement of fact that banking on a given team in a given year to make the final four is a bad bet.
I do feel confident in saying that the Sooners will field one of the five or six best teams in the country this year. Even if that doesn’t produce a Playoff bid, it’s still awfully good.
As for what the team will actually look like this fall, I expect the offense will be an absolute monster. With improved blocking up front, it should open up a wealth of options for Lincoln Riley to attack opposing defenses. Greater deployment of personnel groupings with Samaje Perine and Mixon on the field at the same time will put defensive coordinators in pick-your-poison scenarios, and OU has an experienced field general in Mayfield who should have a good idea of how to take full advantage.
My biggest concern about the defense going into the season is how well the newcomers at linebacker handle their assignments. Read plays and run-pass options can give inexperienced defensive players fits, and there coaches on OU's schedule this year devious enough to come up with all sorts of nastiness to exploit the new faces dotting OU's D.
Game one against Houston will go a long way toward showing how much OU has to game plan around its defense. If the Sooners struggle to slow Tom Herman's filthy rushing attack, fans need to prepare for a season of shootouts. In that case, Stoops may opt to push the tempo on offense to warp speed to leverage all of OU's firepower.
Overall, look for the team's identity to be built around its armada of offensive weapons at the skill positions. The D's ability to limit busts and force opponents to execute consistently when they have the ball will ultimately determine just how good OU's '16 squad can be.