Starting this fall, we will pick one game each week as our “Game of the Week Preview” and then give a full opinion-based recap after the game. Enjoy!
The sound of the school fight song. The thousands of screaming fans supporting their team. The traditions, the pageantry and the pride of two teams battling it out on the gridiron on a Saturday. This is what college football is all about. After months of hibernation it is back and bigger than ever. So fans fire up those grills for your tailgates and put on your school colors because college football season is here! Every week I will breakdown and preview the best matchup the Big 12 has to offer and for this week’s pick, I will be previewing the (3) Oklahoma Sooners taking on the (15) Houston Cougars. Coverage will begin at 12 ET on ABC from NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas.
What’s At Stake?
A top 15 matchup in the first week of the season? It doesn’t get any bigger or better than this. Usually college football fans have to wait weeks into the season for a premier games like this one, but this year is special. The 2016 opening week is widely regarded as the best opening week in college football history and this contest will certainly not take a backseat to any other game over the weekend. For Oklahoma this game is crucial, they are the expected to win the conference and also make it to the college football playoffs to represent the Big 12. They are favored to beat Houston, as they should be, but an early season setback here would definitely put a damper on their playoff hopes. As for Houston, they are in a similar situation much like their opponent.
When you are a non-power five school, you have to treat every game is a like a championship game when it comes to having a chance to get into the college football playoff. This is a must win if Houston wants an invitation to crash the postseason. A victory over Oklahoma, would be that signature win the committee is looking for if they finish their season undefeated. In the bigger picture of things, I am very sure there will be some eyeballs on this game from the Big 12 higher ups to see if Houston is for real. Not only are playoff hopes on the line, but maybe even an invitation to the Big 12 for Houston could be at stake as well.
Oklahoma will be absolutely loaded on the offensive side of the ball. Baker Mayfield leads the attack with his magical escape abilities and gritty gunslinger like attitude. Behind Mayfield will probably be the best running back duo in the entire country in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Perine is the physical between the tackles guy, while Mixon will handle most of the outside carries. This is an excellent one-two punch for any quarterback, let alone Baker Mayfield. At receiver Dede Westbrook will have to be Mayfield’s go to option with Sterling Shepard gone. At 6’5, WR/TE Mark Andrews will be the red zone threat through the air. Also senior Jarvis Baxter will look to help out Westbrook and Andrews as for this group as well as sophomore A.D. Miller.
Up front Oklahoma returns three starters in veteran C Jonathan Alvarez, LT Orlando Brown and RT Dru Samia. These three are nice pieces up front to help protect Mayfield. The Sooners will be breaking in two new starters at the guard position in LG Cody Ford and RG Alex Dalton. I do not worry too much about the two guards because in-between them will be the vocal piece, Jonathan Alvarez. My biggest question for this offense will be is who can step up besides Dede Westbrook and contribute in the passing attack to take some pressure off of the run game.
Defensively the Cougars look very solid up front in their 3-4 scheme. In the middle inexperienced Jerard Carter gets the start over B.J. Singleton who was a nice space eater for the defense last year. I still expect to see plenty of B.J. Singleton to help clog up some running lanes. At defensive end it will be veteran Cameron Malveaux who did a nice job holding his own and stopping the run game. Opposite of Malveaux is Nick Thurman who played some last year but is still unproven. The surprise freshman contributing will be 5 star Ed Oliver who will be thrown into the fire against this high powered offense.
At Linebacker, the two guys on the outside will be Stepehen Taylor and Tyus Bowser. Taylor is above and beyond the best player on this defense. Look for him to be all over the field especially in passing situations, as he recorded 10 sacks last season. Bowser is the big boy of this group at 6’3 240. He much like Taylor has some nice puss rush skills as well as holding his own on the outside. Inside will feature Matthew Adams and D’Juan Hines. Both are very unproven but will be key between the tackles. The back end of this defense is where the biggest question marks lay. They replace almost their entire secondary from last season. Howard Wilson and Brandon Wilson will get the nods at cornerback and Garrett Davis (SS) and Khalil Williams (FS) will start at the two safety spots. Davis is the lone returning starter in the secondary as the others are still quite green.
Oklahoma will most certainly try to get their two work horses in the backfield going to help take some of the heat off Mayfield. The 3-4 scheme and the playmakers Houston has on the edge makes me think that Oklahoma will most certainly try their luck right up the gut of this defense. Even if Houston Is able to slow down the rushing attack, I still am confident that the wide receivers of Oklahoma will win their fair share of battles against this young Cougars secondary. I expect to see a few deep passes from Mayfield off the play action, if Houston zeroes in on the run game. The Houston defense is very aggressive and will take their fair share of gambles. It will be up to Oklahoma to take advantage of the hand that is dealt to them.
Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is one of the most electrifying players in all of college football. He is the heart and soul of Tom Herman’s power spread attack. Ward is almost like having another running back in the backfield at all times. He can run, he can pass and most importantly he is very smart with the football. He doesn’t just have escape abilities; he has the mindset of taking it 80 yards to the house. Accompanying him in the backfield will be the Texas Transfer Duke Catalon who is a very physical and hard nosed runner. At receiver, much like Oklahoma loses their top option from last season. Leading the way will be 6’3 Chance Allen who will be the top target for Ward. With Allen, will be 6’3 Steven Dunbar and speedy Oklahoma State transfer Ra’shad Samples. It is also hard to ignore wide receiver Isaiah Johnson who might have had the best spring game in all of the country. Also 4 star Courtney Lark will be a freshman WR to keep and an eye on to help fill in.
Up front Houston will be bringing back C Will Noble who was a freshman All-American last season and and LG Mason Denleywho started 6 games. The three newcomers are RT Na’Ty Rodgers, RG Mac Long and LT Josh Jones who redshirted last season. The biggest issues I have with this offense, is the line. Three new starters up front and two of them didn’t see any time on the field for Houston last season. This should cause some concern in the passing game if they need to air it out. This is a run heavy and quick hitting offense, so Houston will do their best not to put the new guys up front in bad situations.
Anytime you lose players like Charles Tapper, Eric Striker and Zack Sanchez at all three levels of your defense it definitely stings a bit for your defense. There is no doubt the Sooner faithful will miss these guys, but there is no need to keep your head down as this defense does have some nice talent to work with. Battling it out in the trenches are veteran defensive ends Charles Walker and Matt Dimon who started every game last year for the Sooners. Walker is the leading sack returner for this defense and looks to have another solid season in 2016. The centerpiece of this line will be Jordan Wade, who has been in this program for awhile but hasn’t played a ton of snaps. The Linebacker group is the biggest question mark of this entire defense. OLB Jordan Evans is the most proven linebacker Oklahoma has and joining him will be Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and ILB Tay Evans, who have played in some games but are still very much unproven at this point.
Besides the running back position, this Oklahoma Secondary is the best position group that Bob Stoops and company have. At corner Dakota Austin and Jordan Thomas will be the starters on the outside. These two combined for five INT’s last season and did a solid job in their respective roles. The all important NB position will be filled by William Johnson, who saw action in 11 games with 3 starts under his belt. As far as the back end goes this is the best part of this entire defense. The Mr. Do it all himself Steven parker saw action at safety, corner and nickel back last season and will be now asked to hold down the fort at SS. Last but not least is the leader of this entire defense, FS Ahmad Thomas. Thomas was an absolute stud for Oklahoma last year and will continue to be just that once more. He will step up in a leadership role now that his former Sooner Zach Sanchez is playing on Sundays.
This Sooner defense brings back a couple of savvy veterans but there will be some new faces on the field come Saturday. There is no doubt that the secondary will pave the way for the defense this year, especially in a pass happy Big 12, however Houston is a power spread team and will look to do most of their damage through the ground. The linebacker positions are the gray area of this football team. They must stay in their correct lanes and keep their heads up because you never want to take your eyes off of Greg Ward Jr.
Greg Ward Jr. is an absolute nightmare for defensive coordinators and will drive your defense crazy trying to stop him. It is not very often you see a quarterback this fast and athletic, period. If the Sooner defensive line and linebackers do not stay in their lanes when rushing the passer, all bets are off and it could cause some serious issues. Houston will run their fair share of read option plays with Ward and Catalon and if that is the case you want the ball out of Wards hands when possible. This Oklahoma secondary is much better than the wide receivers they will be facing in this game. Expect to see a lot of one on ones on the outside and shifting all the focus to stop the Cougar rushing attack.
Oklahoma wins if…
Oklahoma wins if they are able to execute the play action pass and make someone besides Greg Ward Jr. to beat you. I fully expect Houston to load the box and try to clog up running lanes, so this will leave a lot of single coverage for the Oklahoma wide receivers. If Houston is over aggressive and doesn’t respect the passing game, it will be up to the Sooners to take advantage of this. The weakest point of the Houston defense is there unproven secondary and Oklahoma should put it to the test whenever the time strikes. Keep an eye on FB Dimitri Flowers and TE/WR Mark Andrews as they will be the first check down for Baker Mayfield on the play action passes. As for the defense, make somebody else besides Ward beat you. If they are able to keep him contained on the outside and stay in their lanes they will have a good chance at slowing the Cougar offense down. Houston doesn’t have a ton of weapons on offense so they key will be stopping him at all cost.
Houston wins if…
Houston wins if they are able to keep Greg Ward Jr. in space. Whenever Ward is in open space it almost guarantees trouble for any defense. Any time a quarterback is able to scramble around and buy time it usually causes serious coverage breakdowns. This is important because the secondary for Oklahoma is very dangerous and Houston could use some help for their mismatched wide receivers. As far defense goes, they key will be stopping the best running back tandem in the entire country, in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. The Sooners will try to pound this defense physically as much as they can and it will be up to the Cougar defense to stop it. The linebackers and secondary will be the groups to keep your eyes on for this ball game.
Oklahoma is able to take advantage of this over aggressive Houston defense, as they make some big plays off the play action pass. The second the Cougars start worrying about the passing attack is when the Sooners rev up the ground and pound with their backfield duo. Greg Ward Jr. will keep this contest interesting as the Sooners aren’t able to fully contain him, and Duke Catalon will have a few nice runs up the middle. Oklahoma survives 38-28, as Houston’s playoff hopes are crushed in week one.
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