Well, That Was Interesting
The bombshell of the college football off-season happened in Norman, Oklahoma. Bob Stoops announced his abrupt retirement in June. This has brought forward an anxious feeling heading into the 2017 Football season. The Oklahoma Sooners haven’t known a football coach not named Bob Stoops since John Blake was fired after the 1998 season. Enter Lincoln Riley, who is by all accounts completely ready to take the reins. However, he is the youngest coach in College Football and unproven. In all sports, we always hear the “next man up” routine and that rings true in this instance as well. The cupboard is far from bare and coming off of back to back Big 12 Championships the expectations will once again be lofty.
Last season was a very up and down season for the Sooners. Oklahoma was ranked third in the preseason polls and was a trendy pick for a College Football Playoff selection. That didn’t come to fruition as the Sooners lost to Houston and Ohio State and plummeted out of the top 25 rankings. However, the Sooners rebounded to win 10 straight culminating in a Sugar Bowl rout of the Auburn Tigers.
Half Full or Half Empty
Any time there is something new happening in the program that tends invigorate the fans, media and the players. There is a belief that one of the reasons that Bob Stoops was comfortable retiring at this point in his career was because he believed that Riley was ready for this opportunity. The consensus has been that Riley and Stoops had many of the same beliefs and methods in terms of how to run a program. What remains to be seen is how those differences will manifest themselves this Fall on Saturdays. The optimism is high, but Oklahoma is a tough fan base to keep happy with the championship or bust mentality.
Let’s Get Offensive
Under Riley’s watchful eye, Oklahoma has been ranked in the top five in each of the past two seasons. Senior Quarterback Baker Mayfield will return for his third season under center for the Sooners in 2017. Mayfield will be counted on to improve his record breaking numbers from a year ago to lead this offense. On both sides of the ball it all begins up front in the trenches. Fortunately, Oklahoma will return all five starters from a unit that ran for 3.078 yards and 30 touchdowns on the ground.
Big Shoes to Fill
When you lose 81% of your rushing production and 63% of your receiving production from the year before, that is always a cause for concern. Oklahoma lost Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon at running back as well as Biletnikoff winner DeDe Westbrook at receiver. Of the 73 total touchdowns from last season, the returning Sooner skill players only represent 36% (26/73) of scoring production.
Running Back Battle
Starting at the running back position, there will be five players in the mix vying to replace Mixon and Perine. Those five individuals are Rodney Anderson, Abdul Adams, Trey Sermon, Marcelias Sutton and Kennedy Brooks. In reality, look to see 2 of these guys emerge as the main ball carriers this season along with fullback Dimitri Flowers who should get some spot carries. The only two of that group that have carried the ball in a college football game is Anderson and Adams. Adams was the third running back a year ago and carried 53 times for 283 yards for over five yards a carry. Anderson was a highly recruited player as a consensus four star guy from Katy, Texas. At this point, Adams and Anderson have the nod as the first two guys that figure to get the nod early in the season.
Replacing a Biletnikoff Winner
Each of the last two seasons, Mayfield has found a favorite receiver and they have got the bulk of the looks. In 2015, Sterling Shepard had nearly 1,300 yards with the next leading receiver nearly 500 yards behind him. Then, last season in Westbrooks’ record breaking season, he had over 1,500 yards with the next leading receiver nearly 1,000 yards behind that. With Westbrook in the NFL, the Sooners offense will look for a committee type approach to replacing that production.
Mark Andrews is the leading returning receiver for the Sooners with 489 yards and seven touchdowns from a year ago. Andrews is a tight end/receiver combo who will need to become a more consistent and reliable target for Mayfield in 2017. However, Andrews will be in the starting lineup as an inside receiver. The Sooners took a blow in the depth department as Nick Basquine blew his Achilles in fall camp and is now out for the season. Basquine figured to split reps with Mykel Jones at the other inside receiver position in 2017. Jones should start alongside Andrews but there are a couple of freshman that will be counted on to provide depth in that area.
CeeDee Lamb and Charleston Rambo are the before mentioned newcomers that will need to grow up in a hurry. Rambo was a consensus four star recruit from Cedar Hill, Texas. He caught 87 passes for 1,590 yards and 25 TD’s as a senior last season. He is 6’1 167 pounds. Lamb and Rambo have many similarities as both are listed at 6’1 and 170 pounds. The similarities don’t end there as both had outstanding senior seasons in Texas. Lamb caught 98 passes for 2,032 yards with 33 TD’s. The early noise out of fall camp is that both are performing the way you would expect as making some incredible plays and also not making some of the routine ones.
When you look at the outside receiver position, the Sooners got a gift from down south. Graduate transfer from Kentucky, Jeff Badet will have the opportunity to be that difference maker much in the same way that Westbrook was a year ago. Badet brings with him 31 catches and 670 yards along with four touchdowns. This will indirectly make him the most experienced receiver that Oklahoma has this season. Looking at the other options outside, Jeff Mead will look to build off of his strong end to 2016 and his 100-yard receiving game in the spring game. Mead has great hands but has struggled with route running in the past, but will be counted on as a major contributor in 2017.
Finally, a newcomer who may be the fastest guy on the team in Marquise Brown will be fighting for time outside. In theory, Brown is the perfect outside receiver for Riley’s offense. He is very quick, has top end speed and is a great bubble screen guy. He also had the benefit of being an early enrolee in the spring which should help him in hopes of contributing this season.
Why so Defensive?
It was no secret that the Sooner defense was the weakest part of the team in 2016. Oklahoma had some historically bad performances a year ago. The Sooners gave up more than 30 points five times on the season. Whether it was the 734 passing yards given up to Patrick Mahomes in the game against Texas Tech or the 331 yards surrendered on the ground against Justin Crawford in a victory against West Virginia, it’s a season defensive coordinator Mike Stoops would like to forget.
A Look on the Bright Side
There was and is a light at the end of the tunnel. For the struggles on the defensive side of the ball, the last half of the season saw some improvement. Through the first seven games, the defense allowed 37 points per contest. However, through the last six games which included three games against ranked opponents the defense surrendered just 20 points a game.
Overall, the secondary was the biggest concern for the Sooners in 2016. Oklahoma will return All-American candidates in defensive back Jordan Thomas and Steven Parker from that secondary group. At the defensive back position opposite Thomas, there will be a two-player battle between Parnell Motley and Jordan Parker. Parker was the starter a year ago, but Motley took advantage of his time in the spring. Riley mentioned him as perhaps the best player on the team in the spring.
Looking at the safety position, Will Johnson looks to have a grasp there and should bring some stability as a senior. However, an interesting development to watch might be from incoming freshman Robert Barnes as he challenges Johnson at the safety spot.
The linebackers might be the best unit on the team in terms of potential. Jordan Evans was the best player on defense last year and he is gone, but look for Caleb Kelly to step up. Kelly started as a true freshman and began to hit his stride towards the end of the year last season. He played wonderfully against Oklahoma State and Auburn to close the season. Emmanuel Beal is a returning starter and should be improved from a year ago. The biggest position battle seems to be between Jon-Michael Terry and Kenneth Murray. Both are very young but extremely talented and will be called upon to contribute in 2017.
The defensive line is anchored by defensive end, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. Okoronkwo had 9 sacks a year ago which tied the single season record at Oklahoma. Also, returning at the tackle position is Matt Romar and Neville Gallimore.
Looking at the 2017 Slate
The schedule is broken up quite nicely for the Sooner this year. There is a good balance in terms of tough games at home and away and also a lot of the tougher games are not back to back.
Win expectations are hard to judge this early in the season as we don’t know as much as we will mid-September. However, a 9-3 regular season should be the minimum expectation and that would still make the natives a little restless. Traveling to Columbus in week two to take on the preseason second ranked Ohio State Buckeyes will be a tall order. Also, Oklahoma must travel to Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State while hosting West Virginia and TCU. As always, the annual Red-River Battle with Texas looms large in October.
At Ohio State (Week 2):
The Buckeyes came into Norman last season and dominated the game from beginning to end. JT Barrett had one of his best games of the season a year ago. This game will certainly be a battle in the trenches as coming into 2017 Oklahoma will have on paper one of the best offensive lines in the country while Ohio State has arguably the best front 7’s in the country. While this game is important on the national stage, it’s even more important for Oklahoma’s playoff hopes is perception and they must be competitive in this contest. Prediction: Loss, 34-24.
First Half of the Big 12 Schedule
at Baylor (Week 4)
This is not the same Baylor team as we remember over the last few years. Under new head coach, Matt Rhule, the Baylor team will be going through a philosophy change in 2017. Baylor will move forward with a more ball-controlled offense and a better emphasis on the defensive side of the ball. There will be some growing pains in Waco as this occurs, so I wouldn’t look for Baylor to be in a position to upset the Sooners. Win, 44-27
Texas (Week 6)
Perhaps no rivalry is better suited to use the cliche that you can throw out the records more than the Oklahoma vs Texas rivalry. An extremely interesting coaching matchup here in first year coaches Lincoln Riley and Tom Herman. Herman is also invoking a new way of life in Texas. The Longhorns are very talented, but they also have a tough early season schedule as they play Maryland and Kansas State at home while traveling to Southern Cal and Iowa State before facing the Sooners. The Sooners will pull this one out it in another close Red River Rivalry game. Win, 35-31.
Kansas State (Week 7)
Bill Snyder and the Kansas State Wildcats could be the San Antonio Spurs of the College Football nation. Every year, there is a thought that they will fall back into a losing season but they continue pressing on. This season will be no exception and you can expect the typical Kansas State team which is ball control offense, a fundamentally sound defense and and a team that will not beat themselves. The only problem will be that they won’t have the athletes to stay with the Sooners. This game will be close for two and a half quarters and then Oklahoma will pull away. Win 34-17.
Back Half of the Big 12 Schedule
Oklahoma State (Week 9)
Coming into the season, Oklahoma State is a clear cut worst case number two team in the league. The Cowboys have arguably the best QB-RB-WR combo in the country with Mason Rudolph, Justice Hill and James Washington. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities for this game to be a top 10 match-up early in November. The Sooners have dominated this series as of late, but this is the best Oklahoma State team that the Sooners have faced in years. Rudolph out-battles Mayfield as the Cowboys win. Loss, 41-38.
West Virginia (Week 12)
Normally, for a two loss team in Norman stakes wouldn’t be very high for this Sooner team in November. The new Big 12 championship game gives Oklahoma a glimmer of hope to defend their crown in Dallas. Oklahoma comes out razor focused with revenge on their mind and plays a nearly flawless game against the Mountaineers to setup a rematch against the Cowboys. Win, 55-21.
As a College Football blue-blood, every season is important for Oklahoma. This especially rings true when you have a roster that is capable of contending for a Championship. With the new sheriff in town, this season has a little more intrigue to it than normal. There are lots of questions that remain to be answered in 2017 for Oklahoma. What kind of a game-day coach will Riley be? How will his approach be different than Stoops? How will the Sooners perform offensively replacing three superstars? Can the defense play well enough to win a championship? In less than one month we will find out these answers and so much more. Stay tuned as this will be an exciting ride.