Note: Over the two weeks leading into the first full slate of college football games, we will take a look at 14 of the top teams heading into 2016 and analyze their chances at making the 2016 College Football Playoff. We continue this series with Oklahoma, a team that finished 11-2 last year and is ranked No. 3 in the 2016 AP preseason top 25 poll.
|Oklahoma will make the CFP because...||Oklahoma won't make the CFP because...|
Ryan Cooper: We've arrived in the top three, and the second team on this list that is looking to make it back-to-back College Football Playoff trips (Michigan State was the first).
Oklahoma was dominant in its run to the Playoff last year following a midseason loss to Texas. It beat up Baylor and Oklahoma State by double digits on the road at the end of the season, with a nailbiter win against TCU sandwiched in between. Once it got to the Playoff, though, things didn't go so well, as the Sooners were bounced by Clemson 37-17.
I see no reason why this team won't be just as successful in 2016. Oklahoma sped things up on offense last year and had some beautiful results, as the system perfectly suits dynamic quarterback Baker Mayfield, one of the favorites for the Heisman.
Will the Sooners go undefeated given the difficulty of their schedule? There's a good chance they won't. But they got into the Playoff with one loss last year, and I see them doing the same in 2016. Let's hear why I'm wrong, Jack.
Jack Freifelder: They certainly seem well-positioned to replicate some of their success from a year ago, especially with Mayfield under center and the backfield tandem of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine still in the mix.
One of the things that could worry some Sooners faithful is a high-profile matchup looming in Week 1 with No. 15 Houston.
Most college football fans know Mayfield, but not as many are familiar with the exploits of Greg Ward Jr.
Granted the Houston QB might have to be in top form to keep pace in this ballgame with OU, but Ward Jr. is just as likely as Mayfield to create havoc for the opposing defense. As a result, there could be some fight from the Cougars in the opener.
Back to the Sooners though. The issue that should worry fans on the offensive side of the ball is the departure of a pair of senior wideouts in Sterling Shepard (86 receptions, 1288 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Durron Neal (44 receptions, 559 yards, three touchdowns).
The most important piece of that puzzle is still in the fold with Mayfield delivering passes, but there’s reason to wonder if Dede Westbrook can step in to be the focus of the passing game. Others will surely factor in as the season progresses, but developing a rapport with your pass-catchers takes time.
Westbrook was the team’s second-leading receiver in 2015, (46 catches, 743 yards, four TDs) but there was a bevy of support a year ago. It’s not so clear who will be the team’s go-to-guys when Mayfield looks to air it out come gametime.
Most can agree that this team will have a heavy run presence, and given it ranked 22nd in the nation in yards (2,887) and touchdowns (32) a year ago, a few new faces along the offensive line will need to mesh well to keep the engine humming.
RC: You're right in your assessment of the somewhat thin receiving corps, but I have all the faith in the world in Mayfield to make things happen regardless of who he is throwing to. And with Mixon and Perine, which is as good of a running back tandem as you will find in the nation, it's hard to see the offense not continuing to hum along, albeit perhaps not quite as good as its No. 7 total offense mark (530.2 yards per game) in 2015.
An underrated aspect of last year's squad was its defense, which, despite the perception as a team that lived on offensive explosions, ranked 39th in the country in total defense (364.5 yards per game). With an offense as powerful as the Sooners', you really don't need a great defense, but when you do have one that rates in the upper quarter nationally, you're in really good shape.
Oklahoma has some really impressive players returning on that defense, particularly Jordan Evans, Charles Walker and Jordan Thomas, who were each All-Big 12 selections last season. I'm also looking forward to seeing what the big defensive end Ogbinnia Okoronkwo can do in an expanded role as he looks to replace Charles Tapper's seven sacks.
The offensive attack is the bread and butter of this team, but the defense is the complementary dish that makes it even better. I'm curious to hear what you see holding Oklahoma back from getting top consideration for the most complete team in the country and a great bet to return to the Playoff.
JF: It’s true that Oklahoma is not nearly as one-dimensional as some fans might think. The defense, which allowed just under 21 points a game a year ago, boasts some impressive stats that need to be mentioned — including seventh in sacks (40) and ninth in interceptions (20).
There’s not a whole lot of weaknesses on a defense that will have multiple upperclassmen all over the field, but there will be a challenge almost every week for this unit to deal with. That type of demanding consistency can take its toll, so the pressure will be on the senior leaders to get their teammates ready to play week in and week out.
That said, the two areas to focus on defensively will be the linebacking group and the team’s cornerback pair of Dakota Austin and Jordan Thomas.
Austin tallied two picks in two games a year ago and Thomas took up the role of de facto ballhawk with five interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown against Oklahoma State. This team will be tested early and often though on defense, as most opponents will look beat the Sooners at their own game of running up the score.
That’s why communication will be key for this defense, and it’s where the ever-important linebacking corps comes into play.
The group will be lead by senior Jordan Evans, who tallied 83 total tackles despite missing two games due to injury. The native of Norman, Okla. was forced to leave the Orange Bowl loss against Clemson with an injury, so he’s likely to have plenty of fire in his belly heading into the 2016 campaign.
However, the support around and behind Evans in the middle of the defense will need to prove itself early on.
Beyond the season-opening matchup with Houston, Oklahoma will also host No. 6 Ohio State in Week 3 and travel to Fort Worth, Texas, to take on No. 13 TCU just a few days later. This trio of tough games in rapid succession would wear down any squad, but keeping the team on task is the job ahead of Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops.
RC: I'm happy you brought up the schedule, because that was really the one element that seems pretty daunting. However, there are a few positives I can take away from it.
First, the brutally difficult portion of the schedule comes very early in the season which, whether it's fair or not, we all know is a time where losses hold less consequence than later in the year. For that reason, Oklahoma can lose a game against at team like Houston, Ohio State or TCU and still get into the Playoff without needing too many dominoes to fall its way.
That TCU game is scary, because it's the only true road game that the Sooners play out of their five opponents who are in the AP preseason top 25 (though the opener is played in the Cougars' backyard of NRG Stadium in downtown Houston). But the good news for Oklahoma is that it has a week of rest between the Ohio State and TCU games, which not only allows the team to catch its collective breath but have an extra week of game-planning for the Horned Frogs.
Having that ability to host teams like Ohio State, Baylor and Oklahoma State in Norman is a big plus for the Sooners, who did not lose a home game last year. It's also worth pointing out that Mayfield's QB rating at home was 192.7, more than 25 points better than his 166.2 on the road. So having the team in a comfortable environment for big games should be a good help in reaching the magic number of 11 wins and booking a ticket to Atlanta or Phoenix for the Playoff.