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2017 Season Preview

Will Oklahoma Continue Its Dominance?

As we look ahead to 2017, does Bob Stoops’ retirement change expectations for the Sooners?

Getty Images - Brett Deering

No one needs to point out deep stats or cool scheme observations to analyze Oklahoma’s place in the Big 12. But WHOA…HOLD THE PHONE…in the middle of the preparation of this analysis, Bob Stoops retired and Lincoln Riley was hired.

It hasn’t sunk in just yet, and I am not sure it will sink in with the squad until practices start in August. My initial reaction was shock…then a desire to downgrade the prognosis…then a thought that maybe nothing has, or will, change.

I am not here to speculate as to why Coach Stoops stepped down. I am willing to take him at his word and I believe that he provided a simple and accurate basis. The transition was intended to create the maximum level of continuity in its timing and form.

The 2017 recruiting class is signed and delivered. Spring workouts are completed. The spring evaluation period has passed. Summer workouts have begun. And, there are more than 85 days to transition and prepare for the 2017 season.

Lincoln Riley has been a masterful addition to the coaching staff and though he was given a massive talent base to work with, his results are in line with the high regard he has garnered. The coaching staff remains in tact, for now.

Looking at it with Crimson and Cream glasses can lead you to the conclusion that this is a situation where the retiring Coach left on top and went to the grocery store to stock the cabinets before he left. Riley is the co-pilot for 2017 and simply has to guide the plane in for its landing. The test will not come until he manages an entire year as a solo captain.

It isn’t like what Matt Campbell, David Beatty, and Matt Rhule are dealing with where a culture change and complete rebuild are taking place.

The negative for OU is that Riley is young and in his first head coaching role on the big stage with bright lights shining on him. Head coaching duties along with responsibility for the offense requires a solid plan of attack and can be difficult to navigate in the first few years.

The players will also have to adjust. Undoubtedly, they drew confidence from the fact that their coach and their school are blue blood representatives of the college football hierarchy. Who knows if Riley can inspire that same confidence.

We won’t get these answers until we see the on field product, which is what this article is about. There is now a new wrinkle in the analysis of what Oklahoma must do to ascend from the class of the Big 12 to the class of college football.

Make no mistake, the expectations for this season are a return to the playoffs. Even with Coach Riley at the helm, the expectation will only be tempered slightly.

To make the leap in to the playoff picture, there are on the field questions that must be addressed. In addition to that, now Oklahoma has some off the field questions to manage as well. How seamless the transition is will be a big factor in the season results.

With the overshadowing backdrop of a coaching change, let’s look at what Coach Riley must address to keep the run of dominance in tact.

Playmakers

OU loses two running backs that I believe will compete for rookie of the year honors in the NFL. Also, Dede Westbrook leaves some HUGE shoes to fill at the wide receiver position.

Based on recruiting metrics, OU should be able to reload. Mark Andrews returns and will be a star. But can Rodney Anderson carry the load, or Adams, or Sermon? We won’t know until they hit the field, but I believe it is safe to conclude that the OU running game will be in good hands.

Westbrook and Mayfield benefited from the threat of Perine and Mixon. Defenses schemed to stop the run and left overmatched corners on an island against a talented passing battery. Is there a receiver on the 2017 team that can threaten a defense like Westbrook?

Perhaps, but the impact of the losses are lessened by the continued presence of Baker Mayfield. If Mayfield is able to continue his supreme accuracy (first in the nation in completion percentage), then it may not matter who the receivers are, as long as they are competent.

While there are players with solid potential, replacing production can be a daunting task. Oklahoma has many options and will look to find the hot hands and the players who will rise to the top. That process can take some time and cause an underwhelming performance along the way.

Therein lies the caution light. Oklahoma will set their season path early in the schedule. They are good enough to go through some growing pains and still win, but they will need to be hitting on all cylinders early. The pressure will be on Coach Riley to exploit the resources available and have the right people in the right place. He has done so as the offensive coordinator, can he do it as the head coach?

Beat Ohio State

The 2016 game against Ohio State was widely held as a drubbing. In the end, Oklahoma was not able to overcome its second loss and finished just outside of the playoff. A loss to Ohio State this year may not weigh that heavily in the final analysis because the game will be on the road and Oklahoma will not be favored. However, a win will push the Sooners, and the conference, to an elite position in the national conversation.

Last year’s game was much closer than the score indicated. Oklahoma could not overcome turnovers and a season long issue with their secondary was exposed. They were not over-matched in personnel or scheme. Re-watching that game gave me the feeling that a win in Columbus is possible.

The key will be the defense. Oklahoma switches back to a 4-3 base defense with an emphasis on creating pressure on opposing quarterbacks. I think this is a smart switch. It matches their personnel, and, if they are able to actually create the pressure they desire then it will result in a much saltier unit.

The scheme switch is also designed to combat Ohio State. Ohio State runs an offense based on power running. As the running game begins to grind, the passing game is deployed to exploit a defense that begins to creep up and crowd the line. Add in QB mobility and it can be difficult to stop. However, if there are seven to eight gap defenders in the box, then Ohio State is forced to execute at a very high level of efficiency to breakthrough.

A steady offensive performance and an inspired defensive performance will be required. Given the stakes for the Sooners in 2017, it is not a leap to expect them to pull off the upset.

Thomas, Motley, and Parker

The OU secondary was much maligned in 2016. Rightfully so. Jordan Thomas maintained a solid level of play, but the balance of the secondary was porous. For Oklahoma to exceed their 2016 results, the players named above are the most important on the team.

Oklahoma fielded a top three team nationally on offense. Contrast that with some of the defensive numbers.

  • Yards per play (defense) — 5.85, 80th in the nation, 6th in the Big 12
  • Yards per rushing attempt (defense) — 4.55, 73rd in the nation
  • Passing yards per game (defense) — 269.4, 111th in the nation
  • Total passing yards (defense) — 3,502, 114th in the nation
  • 3rd down conversions (defense) — 42.5%, 94th in the nation

Good grief. That is bad. Especially for a team with the talent that Oklahoma has. The Stoops remaining on the coaching staff needs to give his new boss something to work with. The aforementioned switch to the 4-3 is expected to assist in bringing those numbers in line.

More pressure from the front seven will assist a shaky secondary as it closes the windows of opportunity. However, creating pressure can put stress on the secondary to cover in more one-on-one sets. That means, OU had better make significant improvements in coverage.

The most significant news out of spring practice for Oklahoma was the emergence of Parnell Motley as a cover corner. Media reports bordered on glowing for his performance. If Motley is the real deal, then OU is in business.

Jordan Thomas is an excellent cover man and Jordan Parker’s solid play will return to the lineup. Motley’s presence as an additional cover corner amplifies the ability of OU to bring creative pressure packages at the line of scrimmage.

The key to OU being able to make the leap to beating Ohio State and managing an improved Big 12 is improving their secondary play enough to allow for the defensive scheme shift to take root. Thomas, Motley, and Parker are capable of turning OU’s defense in to a championship level unit. The season’s expectations depend on it.

So…What Happens Next?

Oklahoma’s goal is to win every game on their schedule. Ohio State, Texas, and Oklahoma State loom large as rivals and prestige building games. I do not believe they can wade through that minefield without a massive improvement on defense.

It is probable that given the split coaching responsibilities of Coach Riley and the need for the emergence of playmakers, that the offense will take a small step back (which would still land them in the top 15 to 20). Coach Riley and Mike Stoops will need to find a way for the defense to perform at a top 50 level or higher. There is a plan in place to do so, the execution will be the determining factor.

Oklahoma will be one of the most intriguing teams to watch in 2017. How they adjust to Coach Riley and how he adjusts to his new role will be the breaking point for achieving their goals. Even with a struggle to adjust, I still expect Oklahoma to win 10 games and appear in the conference championship game. However, I would place them a quarter step below Oklahoma State in their chances to run the table in the Big 12.

The Big 12 is good enough as a whole to take advantage of chinks in the armor of its top team. The gap narrowed a bit yesterday and Oklahoma will have to answer some questions early and often to stretch it back to the comfortable position Bob Stoops has established.

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