Playing defense has been an afterthought for the Oklahoma Sooner football team over the last five years. Still, Oklahoma is on the verge of winning its fifth consecutive conference championship. That’s predominately due to the incredible offense that has been played under Lincoln Riley as the offensive coordinator and now head coach. But, the climate in Norman has changed. This year, the Sooners are playing complementary football. But, can Oklahoma’s defense flip the script in the national discussion?
Oklahoma’s Defense in High Gear
Oklahoma’s defense this season has been like the fall weather in Oklahoma, very inconsistent to say the least. Under new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, there was a clear improvement over the first seven games on the season. Then, the Sooners hit a three-game wall. But, they’ve been able to right the ship and play championship football over the last two and a half games. However, to fully appreciate where they are currently it’s important to understand how far they have come.
The Stoops Regime comes to an end
When Bob Stoops announced his retirement in the summer of 2017, many wondered where that would leave the program. And, even more, wondered where that would leave Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. Riley decided to keep Stoops on staff as whether he was performing well or not, there was logically not enough time to introduces coaching staff changes at that time.
Even though they were winning conference championships, Oklahoma’s defense was deteriorating both on the stat sheet and with the eye test. From 2015-2018, Oklahoma went from 29th in total defense to 101st last season. It wasn’t necessarily the every week performances, it was the fact that every year Oklahoma would have an embarrassing game that would somehow surpass the year before. 2016 had the 59 point game by Texas Tech. 2017 saw the Sooners relinquish 52 and 54 points to Oklahoma State and Georgia. And, 2018 was statistically the worst defense in program history that saw the Sooner allow more than 50 points on six occasions.
Midway through the 2018 season, Stoops was fired as the defensive coordinator and Ruffin McNeil was elevated to interim coach. Incredibly, the defense got worse, especially down the stretch run. Ultimately, that ended in a 45-point defensive performance against Alabama that could have been much worse. Now, Riley would look for Stoops’ successor.
The Grinch that stole Oklahoma’s Defense
Sooner fans are not the most patient in the country. At a school like Oklahoma, it’s win big and win now. But, most fans realized that this reclamation project would take some time. Oklahoma found themselves dead last in pass defense in the country in a conference that lives and breathes on the air attack. More than anything, Oklahoma needed a new brand, a new mentality, a new attitude. And, that’s exactly with the Sooners got in Alex Grinch.
Grinch’s career at Missouri, Washington State, and Ohio State have been predicated on speed and effort. Grinch, along with Brian Odom and Roy Manning preached playing with maximum effort and maximum speed through spring and fall practice. Even so, the question on the mind and hearts of Sooner nation was, is it coaching or is it talent?
For one season in Norman, that answer has been unequivocally been the former. Grinch has taken a team that gave up 36 points per game in 2018 to 27 this year with mostly the same players. Even more impressive is the fact that he has them playing their best football at the most important time. That’s proven by the fact that Oklahoma has given up three offensive touchdowns in their last two and a half games. For comparison, the Sooners gave up eight in their last regular-season game against West Virginia last season.
What Lies Ahead
Grinch’s first season has given the Sooners both reason for optimism and the feeling that there is some meat left on the bone. The good news is that Oklahoma is 13th in the country 3rd down conversion percentage at 31%, 28th in the country in total defense, and went from being ranked 130th in passing defense to 22nd this year. However, being ranked in triple figures in red zone defense and turnovers forced will beg for additional room for improvement.
Height in the secondary, as well as overall talented depth, is a must for Grinch and Oklahoma. Riley has made a huge improvement in recruiting over the three years at Oklahoma. Now, that’s starting to rub off on the defensive side of the ball. The Sooners signed eight different four-star defensive prospects in the 2019 class. And, they already have four verbal commitments for the 2020 class according to 247 sports ahead of the December early signing period.
For now, Oklahoma once again remains in the thick of the College Football Playoff discussion. With a win against Baylor on Saturday in Arlington Oklahoma will win its FBS best fifth straight conference title. And, they will have a compelling argument for a third straight playoff berth. With that, Oklahoma could bring a top 25 defense to balance its top-ranked offense to the show. Could that be enough to bring championship number eight to Norman? If nothing else, it allows the defense to be in the same conversation as the powerhouse offense that Riley has built.