2015 marked a big year for the Oklahoma Sooners. With a regular season record of 11-1, the Sooners earned their first undisputed Big 12 Championship since 2010. Unfortunately, even this elite level of success couldn’t quite break an even worse streak: the Oklahoma Sooners have lost to at least one team from Texas every year since 2004.
In the mid to late 2000s, these losses came at the hands of Vince Young and Colt McCoy of the Texas Longhorns, as well as tough losses against Texas A&M and Von Miller. Perfectly understandable to lose to great teams and players like these, but when your coach is nicknamed ‘Big Game Bob’, two loss seasons are usually two losses too many.
Then a funny thing happened. Just as Oklahoma began to hit their stride again, winning the Big 12 title outright in 2010, TCU and Baylor emerged as new pains for Oklahoma, ready to unleash their hurry up offenses on the long-time conqueror of the Big 12.
2011 saw Baylor defeat the Sooners for the first time in 109 years, and 2012 saw Johnny Football and the Aggies embarrass Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. The two loss 2013 Sooners managed to score a massive win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, but regular season double digit losses to both Texas and Baylor still kept Coach Stoops a ways away from reclaiming his throne as ruler of the Big 12.
The 8-5 2014 Oklahoma Sooners were what finally caused Coach Stoops to say enough is enough. 8 out of 9 of Stoops assistants were replaced following the down year, with the major change being a switch to a more fast-paced spread offense. The man behind the switch? Lincoln Riley, a 31 year old offensive coordinator who had success at East Carolina in the same role, and has a background at Texas Tech as a walk-on quarterback who learned the ins and outs of the air raid offense under guru head coach Mike Leach.
And just like that, Oklahoma football was back! An 11-2 2015 season ended with a 20 point loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl, but Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield gave the Sooners’ offense a major spark, and even finished fourth in the Heisman vote. More importantly, Oklahoma managed to roll through the Big 12, with only one slip up to Texas early in the season.
Looks like Ohio State is out of luck then huh? Vegas sure thinks so, as the opening point spread for Ohio State and Oklahoma’s September match-up saw Oklahoma favored by 9 points over the Buckeyes. 9 points.
Now, this 9 point spread (which was released during the middle of May) has since been decreased to 6.5, but this still seems a bit high considering Urban Meyer has never lost at Ohio State as an underdog, or on the road. Ohio State should absolutely be the underdog for their week three match-up in Norman, Oklahoma, but there are several reasons to believe that Oklahoma may not be the 2016 college football powerhouse that everyone is expecting, and that 6.5 points may still be a few too many.
Oklahoma had a great 2015 season, but they were helped by timely injuries
Oklahoma was a very popular national championship pick as late as December of last season, and you can definitely see why. Finishing the year ranked 4th in S&P+, not only was Oklahoma beating nearly everyone they played, but they were doing so in style.
The problem in hindsight wasn’t so much how they were winning, but who they were winning against. A crucial 30-29 November win at home over TCU could be seen as Oklahoma finally moving past one of their new Big 12 rivals, or you could notice that Trevon Boykin didn’t play due to injury, and TCU was actually just one missed two point conversion away from winning in Norman despite not having their Heisman contender at quarterback.
As for Baylor, the same Baylor that had beaten Oklahoma three of the last four seasons, Oklahoma gutted out a 44-34 victory on the road. Was Baylor missing their own starting quarterback and Heisman contender Seth Russell? Yes, but this year Oklahoma’s high powered offense was good enough to get the job done.
Injuries happen to every team, but it was awfully convenient for Oklahoma to survive their two toughest match-ups of the season thanks in large part to the single most important player on both teams being hurt. Which leads us to our next point...
The book may be written on how to slow down the Sooners’ offense
Last season saw three key players make the Oklahoma offense into the explosive unit it was. Quarterback Baker Mayfield, running back Samaje Perine, and wide receiver Sterling Shephard. While the prolific passing combo of Mayfield to Shephard was mostly executing at will, the Oklahoma offense struggled when the running game couldn’t get going.
Only four times in 2016 did Oklahoma’s offense score 31 points or less. On these four occasions the Sooners went 2-2, still prevailing against Tennessee in double overtime and against TCU in the before-mentioned late season match-up. The numbers for Perine:
While Perine still managed to gash TCU, we notice that three of his four worst yards per carry performances have come in Oklahoma’s worst offensive displays - by far. This offense wasn’t exactly taking it easy on anybody, as scores in the 50s and 60s are very common in the above image. This makes the fact that Perine’s struggles led to offense performances far below the Sooners’ 2015 average of 43.5 points per game.
Unfortunately for Ohio State, there is reason for concern regarding the lack of experience on the Buckeyes’ defensive line, and their early development and ability to stop the run in Norman could go a very long way in attempting to slow down the Oklahoma attack.
Much has been made about Ohio State’s depleted roster. With a mere six starters returning, Ohio State needs to grow up fast to have a shot at taking down Oklahoma. However, there are some positives in the Ohio State returning starters, as it won’t be a complete offensive line overhaul (guard Billy Price and guard, now center, Pat Elflein return), and J.T Barrett is back to try to put together another Heisman caliber season.
Oklahoma’s offense brings back the big names in Mayfield and Perine, but the offensive line will need to replace both starting guards like Ohio State, and the receiving corps will need to prove that Sterling Shephard wasn’t completely responsible for much of the unit’s 2015 success.
Oklahoma’s defense returns the bulk of its defensive line and secondary, but replacing three linebackers (including stud Erik Striker) will not be easy. A play-action heavy offense like Ohio State’s puts a lot of pressure on linebackers to consistently make correct reads, and this will be even more difficult while trying to break in these new starters.
The Bottom Line
Oklahoma is looking at a very promising 2016 season. The consensus Big 12 favorite will likely be favored against nearly everyone on the schedule, and for good reason. Mayfield and Perine are both great players with their names already scattered across the Oklahoma record books, and Oklahoma brings back the majority of a top 20 defense.
Offseasons are long, and we tend to forget smaller aspects of the season in return for more broad conclusions. “Oklahoma won the Big 12”, replaces “Oklahoma won the Big 12 after both Baylor and TCU lost their Heisman contender quarterback.” Samaje Perine ran over everybody...except three of the better defenses he faced all season.
Should the young and inexperienced Buckeyes be underdogs on September 17 in Norman, Oklahoma? Absolutely, but Urban Meyer hasn’t lost to an opponent by more than a touchdown twice since 2010, and history has shown that Meyer has no trouble with getting an inexperienced roster up to speed quickly. So before you are willing to go all in on the Sooners in 2016, just make sure you’re positive that Oklahoma is back to their yearly dominance, and not just coming off one good year with the right circumstances.