The Oklahoma Sooners are expected to be back in the playoffs this year after missing out in 2020. In February, College Football News ranked OU third. ESPN, last May, rated the Sooners No. 1 in its post-spring power ranking. 247 Sports recently predicted Oklahoma to return to the semifinals, and once again, meet Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Football guru Phil Steele picks the Sooners to win their eighth national title.
Oklahoma has received a lot of respect the past two decades in the Bob Stoops and Lincoln Riley regimes. After Stoops led the Sooners to their seventh national championship in 2000, some of his teams failed to live up to high expectations in his final 16 years as head coach. Sure, many were close, but major disappoints came in 2005, 2009, 2011, and 2012. There also were losses in the BCS Championship to LSU, USC (although the Trojans cheated), and Florida. Another embarrassment came in the 2015 Orange Bowl when Clemson sent the Sooners packing in their first College Football Playoff appearance.
Riley took OU to three more CFP semifinal appearances—dropping all three.
But, enough of looking at the depressing crap of the past, 2021 is the future. Here and now. If the Sooners are to stake claim to their eighth national crown, several factors must come into play.
First, good defense. The defense is expected to be the best in Alex Grinch’s three-year tenure as coordinator. The D allowed 5.6 points less in 2020 compared to 2019 (27.3-21.7) and one yard per play better (6.1 – 5.2) a year ago compared to 2019. DE Ronnie Perkins and Tre Norwood took early exits to the NFL, and Tre Brown graduated. Perion Winfrey leads the pack on the front line. Others include LaRon Stokes, Josh Ellison, Jordan Kelley, and, hopefully, an entire season of Jalen Redmond. Isiah Thomas, a beast at end, is questionable as he got into trouble with a recent petty larceny charge.
The linebacking corps will be deep in rotation with the return of Nic Bonitto, DeShawn White, Brian Asamoah, Bryan Mead, and David Ugwoebu. Caleb Kelley, the only player on the squad to play under Stoops, should be ready to shine again.
The secondary has always been a factor for Oklahoma to succeed. Patrick Fields and Dellarin Turner-Yell are the incumbents at the safety slots. Brendan Radley-Hiles transferred to Washington. Jeremiah Cridell and Tennessee transfer Key Lawrence are the likely successors at nickelback. Jaden Davis, Woodi Washington, and D.J. Graham will battle for the corner slots. Oklahoma also signed a handful of four-star d-backs who might see playing time.
Offense Does Its Thing
The offense never seems to be a concern. Spencer Rattler has another year’s experience at quarterback. Running back Kennedy Brooks returns after a year layoff due to Coronavirus concern. Eric Gray is another Tennessee transfer, and he shined in the Red-White game last April. Mikey Henderson and Jeremiah Hall, and Marcus Major round out the backfield. Tre Bradford is transferring in from LSU. Although he saw little action with the Tigers, he should provide valuable depth in the backfield.
Marvin Mims, Drake Stoops, Theo Wease, and Jadon Haselwood lead the pack of returning receivers. Haselwood played in three games late last year after suffering a torn ACL. Mario Williams, a five-star recruit, showed promise in the R-W game. Stoops earned a scholarship in the spring.
Austin Stogner and Brayden Willis again will share duties at tight end. A knee injury and staph infection sidelined Stogner for a few games in 2020, but he should be back to true form at TE if he stays healthy.
Three-fifths of the offensive line are back— guards Marquis Hayes and Tyrese Robinson and tackle Erik Swenson. Center Creed Humphrey and right tackle Adrian Ealy took an early exit for the NFL leaving big shoes to fill at those positions. The third Tennessee transfer Wanya Morris, played 17 games on the blind side the past two years for the Vols. If he nails the job down, Swenson will be moved to right tackle, where he started against Missouri State before moving to the left side.
Chris Murray, Andrew Rayhm, and Robert Congel took snaps at center in the RW game in April and will continue to battle for the starting role in fall camp.
No matter how it shakes out, Bill Bedenbaugh is one of the best anywhere in coaching up the behemoths on the front wall.
Second, Lincoln Riley needs to keep the hammer down when holding a lead. Georgia came back from a 17-point deficit to win the Rose Bowl semifinal playoff four years ago. Earlier, in that 2017 season, the Sooners held an 18-point lead over Baylor. The Bears fought back before losing by eight.
Two years ago, Oklahoma had cruised to a 42-21 lead over Iowa State in Norman. The Cyclones fought back and lost 42-41 when Parnell Motley picked off Brock Purdy’s two-point pass attempt with 24 seconds remaining. Last year, a 21-point lead against Kansas State evaporated when the Wildcats scored 24 points in the final 16-and-a-half minutes. The Sooners held a 14-point advantage over Texas heading into the fourth quarter. The Longhorns scored the only points in the fourth quarter for a tie to force overtime. Fortunately, OU prevailed in four overtimes.
Avoid the Trap Game
Third, the Sooners need to stop losing to foes they’re supposed to beat. Namely: Kansas State and Iowa State. The Cyclones turned out to be a contender last season, but the Wildcats went 3-3 (2019) and 3-6 (2020) after knocking off the Sooners.
Oklahoma has the horses to go undefeated in Riley’s fifth year. Since 2015, OU has overcome adversity after losses. 2015 began 1-2 and won 10 straight. After losing to the Cyclones in 2017, the Sooners reeled off eight straight victories before succumbing to Georgia in the playoffs. A year later, they lost to Texas, then won seven straight, including a rematch victory over the Longhorns in the Big 12 title tilt. Oklahoma stumbled against K-State in 2019 but captured five consecutive wins. Last year, after a 1-2 start, the Sooners rolled up eight straight victories, which included avenging their loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 CCG and blowing out Florida in the Cotton Bowl.
With an improved defense, less conservative play calls on offense, and no slip-ups against weaker foes, OU might just run the table to a seventh straight conference title and eighth natty. Obtaining a No. 1 or 2 seed in the playoffs could get the Sooners to Jerry World, site of one of the semifinals, and close to home for crimson fans to make a huge turnout.