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Even without Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma is still far and away your 2018 Big 12 favorite

Lincoln Riley’s Sooners still have more proven pieces than just about anyone and a very doable path back to the CFP.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma Spring Game Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

That was one hell of a 12-month period:


A year ago, I was wondering what kind of effect Riley’s rookie status might have on a title contender. We saw some unsure moments, but the Sooners survived with only one blemish, improved in November, and came within one play of the title game. Hard to ask for much more than that.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Oklahoma vs Georgia
Lincoln Riley
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Now, even with the loss of one of the best QBs in college football memory, the Sooners remain easily the most proven commodity in the Big 12.

Murray will have quite the list of complements, from running back Rodney Anderson to receivers Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and CeeDee Lamb to three all-conference, multi-year starters on the line (guards Ben Powers and Dru Samia and tackle Bobby Evans). And the Sooners’ young defense improved late (until the second half of the Rose Bowl) and returns some exciting pieces.

With what Riley is building, a couple of glitches minus Mayfield wouldn’t be the end of the world. Recruiting is going gangbusters — OU signed a top-10 class in 2018 and is potentially in the process of inking a top-five class — and defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has almost no seniors this fall. OU should improve defensively this fall, then do so again in 2019.

In revitalizing the program and guiding the Sooners to their best finish in 13 years, Riley earned a pretty big mulligan. He might not need to use it this fall, but if he does, the future is still bright.


2017 Oklahoma offensive radar

Per Off. S&P+, here are the top five offenses of the 2010s:

  1. 2017 Oklahoma (47.2 adjusted points per game)
  2. 2013 Texas A&M (47.1)
  3. 2016 Oklahoma (46.8)
  4. 2010 Auburn (46.8)
  5. 2011 Oklahoma State (46.6)

A Johnny Manziel offense, a Cam Newton offense, the Brandon Weeden-led OSU attack that came within a goalpost of the BCS title game, and two Mayfield offenses.

I figure that expresses just how absurd the Sooner attack was with the No. 1 pick.

OU was so far ahead that, even taking iffy returning production into account, the Sooners are still projected as the No. 1 offense this season. That’s an unreasonable expectation, but the Sooners will still be pretty potent.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Oklahoma vs Georgia
Rodney Anderson
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Rodney Anderson had to wait his turn in Norman, missing one season with a leg injury and another with a neck fracture. He didn’t get the reins as OU’s go-to back until the seventh game of the season against K-State. But when he did, the Sooner offense went to a different level.

  • Anderson, first 6 games: 22 carries, 82 yards (3.7 per carry), 2 TD
  • Anderson, last 8 games: 166 carries, 1,079 yards (6.5 per carry), 11 TD

OU averaged 42 points per game before he emerged, then lifted that to 47.5 when he became the feature guy. Blue-chip freshman Trey Sermon wasn’t chopped liver either — he averaged 6.2 yards per carry for the season and 6.8 in those last eight games — but with Anderson taking over, OU’s run game maintained its upside with fewer negative plays.

Combining this duo with the exceedingly mobile Murray is enticing. Not including sacks, Murray has rushed 59 times for 529 yards (9.0 per carry) in his brief career at OU and Texas A&M. He’s lightning, and the five hosses in front of him should help.

The Sooners return three all-conference linemen in Powers (first-team in 2017), Samia (second-team), and Evans (honorable mention). They bring back senior Jonathan Alvarez, who redshirted in 2017 after starting 13 games previously, and guard Cody Ford, who made four spot starts last fall. They lose significant pieces in consensus All-American Orlando Brown and first-team all-conference center Erick Wren, but they have six guys who’ve combined for 103 career starts.

We know from Riley’s past as offensive coordinator at ECU and OU that he’s more than happy to incorporate a layer of easy, short, efficient passing to keep his attack on schedule. In receivers like Lamb (plus-20 percent marginal efficiency), slot man Mykel Jones (plus-24 percent over 21 targets in 2017), and tight end Grant Calcaterra (plus-31 percent over 14 targets), Murray might have some ultra-efficient targets to work with.

The thought of going vertical, though, will be endlessly tantalizing, thanks to Brown.

NCAA Football: Big 12 Championship-Texas Christian vs Oklahoma
Marquise Brown
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Right around the time Anderson found himself, Brown emerged as one of the nation’s most terrifying receivers. He had six catches for 126 yards against Kansas State, then nine for 265 against Oklahoma State. Thanks to the presence of WR/TE Mark Andrews (now a Baltimore Raven), he never had to be the go-to guy, but he averaged 20.1 yards per catch over the final 10 games.

If the run game and horizontal passing game are working, throwing to Brown will be the finishing move for Murray ... or whoever ends up starting at QB.

It bears mentioning that Murray didn’t exactly pull away from four-star sophomore Austin Kendall in the spring battle. Murray, a blue-chipper who started for part of his freshman season at A&M, is the big name. He was a high-profile recruit, and he’s averaged nine yards per non-sack carry and completed 60 percent of his passes thus far.

But he’ll have to be awfully good to stay ahead of Kendall in a battle that might continue into the season. Kendall isn’t as electric as Murray in the run game — few are — but he’s got a lot of potential himself.


2017 Oklahoma defensive radar

BREAKING: Mike Stoops is still Oklahoma’s coordinator.

I’m not going to lie — I didn’t really expect that. Being that he’s the brother of the former head coach and the head man for a defense that has been disappointing and/or inconsistent, it was easy to assume Stoops might ease his way into another job. I don’t mean this as a particularly positive or negative thing; I’m just surprised.

OU’s 2017 is a good example of how full-season numbers can only tell you so much.

  • OU defense, first 3 games: 12.3 points per game | 4.2 yards per play | 76 percent average percentile performance
  • OU defense, next 6 games: 36.2 points per game | 6.6 yards per play | 31 percent average percentile performance
  • OU defense, last 4 games: 17.8 points per game | 5.1 yards per play | 70 percent average percentile performance

OU played about half the season with a top-30 defense and about half with a bottom-30 defense. And for the first six drives of the Rose Bowl, the Sooners had the upper hand on Jake Fromm, Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, and a dynamite Georgia attack.

Then it all unraveled. Georgia scored seven times in its last 11 drives, a 17-point lead turned into an overtime loss, and the “OU’s defense stinks!” narrative from the midseason came roaring back.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas
Kenneth Murray
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

If you look only at the full-season numbers and the fact that the Sooners must replace four of their top six havoc creators (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles), then it’s hard to be optimistic. Obo Okoronkwo alone made 17 percent of OU’s havoc plays, and he’s gone.

There’s hope in youth, though.

  • Sophomore linebacker Kenneth Murray made 7.5 TFLs, second on the team, and almost all over the second half of the season. He was a huge part of the defense’s improvement.
  • Cornerbacks Parnell Motley and Tre Norwood combined for 4.5 TFLs (all from Motley) and 19 passes defensed as a sophomore and freshman, respectively. As an unexpected No. 1 CB in the Big 12, Motley was challenged constantly by big-time Big 12 receivers, and he got beaten a lot, but he landed some blows of his own.
  • Sophomore corner Jordan Parker is back, too. Motley was an unexpected No. 1 in part because Parker was lost with a knee injury right at the start of the season.
  • Tackles Marquise Overton, Neville Gallimore, Amani Bledsoe, and Dillon Faamatau are back after all taking on heavy loads as sophomores. OU’s run defense was hit and miss and different every week, but experience up front can be enormous.
  • End Kenneth Mann is back. He was second on the team in sacks, also as a sophomore. Whether he can raise his game to Okoronkwo levels remains to be seen.

Holy cow, the young talent coming in. OU boasts four- or five-star true or redshirt freshmen at each level of the defense — six on the line, three at linebacker, two in the backfield. If only a quarter of them are ready for niche roles (and it sounds like safety Brendan Radley-Hines and end Ronnie Perkins could be ready for more than that), then this team will have depth it couldn’t fathom last year. Depth doesn’t equal play-making, but it gives you lots more margin for error.

NCAA Football: Big 12 Championship-Texas Christian vs Oklahoma
Parnell Motley (11)
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Oh, Austin Seibert. OU was masterful at finishing drives in 2017, and not only because of Mayfield. On the rare opportunities when a drive stalled out, Seibert — once the No. 1 kicker recruit in the country — was able to salvage points. He was perfect on PATs and 17-for-21 on field goals, and he was a perfect 5-for-5 in OU’s three one-possession wins in conference play.

But we’ll forever remember one of the four misses: the blocked kick in overtime in the Rose Bowl. That’s a kicker’s life in a nutshell.

Seibert also never found a rhythm in the punting department. OU ranked just 101st in punt efficiency, which drove just a No. 71 overall ranking in Special Teams S&P+. And while punting wasn’t a big deal with OU’s ridiculous offense, he might need to come through a bit more this fall.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Florida Atlantic 31 13.3 78%
8-Sep UCLA 39 16.0 82%
15-Sep at Iowa State 46 12.3 76%
22-Sep Army 92 27.3 94%
29-Sep Baylor 50 18.1 85%
6-Oct vs. Texas 27 9.9 72%
20-Oct at TCU 22 5.6 63%
27-Oct Kansas State 61 20.1 88%
3-Nov at Texas Tech 47 12.9 77%
10-Nov Oklahoma State 19 10.0 72%
17-Nov Kansas 103 30.1 96%
23-Nov at West Virginia 43 12.0 76%
Projected S&P+ Rk 9
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 1 / 49
Projected wins 9.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 16.4 (6)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 6 / 11
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 5 / 4.2
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 53% (55%, 52%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 11.9 (0.1)

As with Oklahoma State, I do figure OU’s S&P+ projections are a bit skewed — not necessarily in the overall ranking (ninth feels about right to me), but in the No. 1 projection on offense and No. 49 projection on defense. Assume more regression on O and more improvement on D.

Also assume OU wins a lot of games. There’s no question that losing Mayfield and company will give a team like TCU, Texas, OSU, or WVU a chance to make up ground. But of those four contenders, only the Mountaineers have a proven QB.

Oh yeah, and at ninth, OU is the projected favorite in every game on the schedule. Only one game (the trip to TCU) is projected within a touchdown.

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