With its limited geography and TV market share, Big 12 football is a niche market with a murky future. But it's hard to find a more compelling drama on Saturdays, and it's probably college football's most entertaining product.
This year's season had a fantastic twist ending in which the two expected stars of the show, TCU's Trevone Boykin and Baylor's Seth Russell, had injuries that limited their impact. Meanwhile unheralded star Baker Mayfield, the Chris Pratt of college football, saw a meteoric rise while leading Oklahoma to reclaim control of the league.
Here's how Bob Stoops and the Sooners managed to turn things around this year and finish 11-1 as the most complete team in the league, the outright Big 12 champions and No. 3 in the Playoff rankings.
The Sooners entered 2014 with a lot of hope after Trevor Knight's glorious victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and a tweaked 3-4 defense designed to move star linebacker Eric Striker all over the field. They then went 8-5, were humiliated at home by Baylor, and finished the year by getting blown out by Clemson 40-6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
That set things up for a very interesting 2015 offseason.
Stoops fired much of his offensive staff and hired Lincoln Riley from ECU to bring back the air raid. Stoops also brought in a new DB coach (Notre Dame's Kerry Cooks) to take over for Mike Stoops and old staff hand Bobby Jack Wright while moving his volatile brother up to the booth on game days where he
couldn't get into any shouting matches with the players could provide more oversight.
With a new staff installed, the Sooners saw a team identity slowly start to form with several players growing into roles that filled major gaps. The biggest, outstanding issues from 2014 all related to the passing game, as the Sooners were not particularly adept either throwing the ball or stopping anyone else from doing so.
The Sooner secondary had been enduring several misses at CB in recruiting and were forced to move nickel/safety Julian Wilson out wide in 2014 and played Eric Striker primarily in the nickel position. It turned out that Striker was the only truly threatening pass rusher on the team, and he couldn't consistently attack protections playing as the nickel. Wilson's time at cornerback also went poorly and the Sooners' pass defense was frequently a sieve.
But after an offseason with Cooks, sophomore Jordan Thomas was ready to go opposite three-year starter Zack Sanchez and ended up taking on the assignment of covering Corey Coleman in Waco and doing a fantastic job. Sophomore safety Steven Parker was able to give Stoops coverage flexibility playing man coverage on slot receivers, and then JUCO CB Will Johnson emerged to give the Sooners a viable nickel package.
Meanwhile, outside linebacker Devante Bond emerged as another viable pass rusher opposite Striker who could allow the Sooners to still bring heat without having to rely on nickel blitzes every time they wanted pressure.
The overall result of these developments was that the Sooners were able to vacillate between a 3-4 base defense in which they had versatile pass rushers at both outside LB spots with Striker and Bond...
...or a 3-3-5 nickel package that featured Striker near the line of scrimmage as a more permanent pass rusher:
The Sooners were quietly due for a move to the spread.
After losing several massive OL, "Yeti" TE Blake Bell, and smashmouth fullback Aaron Ripkowski, hiring Riley was a demonstration of great foresight on the part of Stoops. With transferred walk-on Baker Mayfield it turned out they had the perfect QB on campus to make the system work.
What was perhaps most impressive was the buy-in from star sophomore running back Samaje Perine, who clearly put the time in to allow the Sooners to feature a two-back offense. Perine splits time running the ball or throwing lead blocks for Mayfield or his backfield mate, redshirt freshman Joe Mixon.
A year after getting 263 carries for 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns, Perine saw his role and production drop to 211 carries for 1291 yards and 15 TDs. Mixon added another 749 yards on 110 carries and seven TDs and Mayfield yet another seven rushing TDs, 400 yards and 131 carries.
All of this production on the ground came with a rebuilt OL, new scheme and greater emphasis on passing the ball and spread formations. When the Sooners got this machine rolling after a brutal rivalry game loss to Texas, it was a rolling ball of butcher knives that broke 50 points five times in seven games.
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Not everything was fixed in the offseason.
In keeping with all of their traditions, the Sooners were opportunists who came together at the perfect time while the rest of the Big 12 was falling apart.
While the pass defense and attack were both improved, early in the year OU struggled with physical running teams like Tennessee and Texas, and struggled to impose its own will in the trenches on offense. Of the 2,460 combined rushing yards from Perine, Mixon and Mayfield, 1,803 of them came after the Texas game (Oct. 10). That's about 73% of the run game production on the season, and depending on the Sooners' Playoff opponent, the increased run production could make a big difference.
Much of this came as a result of three developments over the course of the season. The first was a move towards more zone blocking when the man-blocking schemes that Riley brought with him from ECU didn't click quickly for the young Sooner OL.
Perine in particular thrives on outside zone blocking where he's either turning the corner and squaring up on some poor, hapless Big 12 DB or else planting and cutting upfield. The man schemes, as they were blocked early in the year, required a lot of discretion and wiggle both from the pulling OL and the RB that didn't initially suit Perine's style.
Another major adjustment was the settling of the OL that took place when the Sooners finally inserted freshman Dru Samia in at right tackle, considerably elevating the quality of play. Against the Longhorns, when Mayfield was sacked five times, the Sooners were devastated by the pass rush. Much of that came from various Longhorns attacking off the right edge.
The added athleticism and overall improved cohesion of the unit was evident by the end of the year, when they successfully ran counter trey over and over again against Oklahoma State in the de facto Big 12 championship game.
Whereas earlier in the year this play would be marked by lack of movement at the line of scrimmage and failed pulling blocks, here you see an improving cohesion in the concert of blocks. With Samia stepping in at RT the Sooners actually became very efficient running to the left behind big LT Orlando Brown (6'8, 342 pounds), either with zone schemes or this counter trey play:
What's really made the play click for the Sooners was that the left side of the OL is basically blocking with zone techniques, looking to screen off the DL and create creases for the pulling OL to operate in. Samia and right guard Nila Kasitati both proved very adept at finding people to block when pulling across, while Brown and LG Jonathan Alvarez both excel with zone-style blocking techniques.
Mixon thrives on this play because of his lateral quickness and vision, which can allow him to bounce the play outside or cut it back. Perine learned to be successful with this play by treating it like outside zone and either cutting upfield off the tackle's block or bouncing it outside where he is every Big 12 cornerback's worst nightmare.
Defensively, the Sooners' only needed adjustment was to plug in Will Johnson as the nickel CB. They were able to have formational versatility to matchup with different opponents, and allow Striker to attack opponents as a playmaker rather than getting targeted by savvy offenses.
It's no accident the Sooners were able to build up their run game and grow in confidence as a team thanks to a schedule that pitted them against the league's cream puffs for four weeks after their defeat against Texas. Then when they faced the meat of their schedule, a conclusion of at Baylor, vs. TCU and at Oklahoma State, they were gifted the opportunity to play both the Bears and Horned Frogs fresh off injuries to starting QBs Seth Russell and Trevone Boykin.
Winning on the road against Oklahoma State proved to be the most impressive victory of the Sooners' run, and their in-state rivals were hardly the juggernaut their 10-2 record suggested with very narrow wins over Texas, Texas Tech and Kansas State. Now the Sooners are Big 12 champs once more and the Playoff awaits as an opportunity to prove their mettle against the nation's best.
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