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College Football Playoff 2018 predictions: How the No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners can win it all

We’re down to four teams who can win this year’s College Football Playoff National Championship. In the four years of this format, the No. 4 team has won the national title twice. That’s good news for No. 4 Oklahoma, which will face No. 1 Alabama in the Orange Bowl. With a win, Oklahoma would face either Clemson or Notre Dame in the national championship. 

While Alabama is a two-touchdown favorite over Oklahoma, the Sooners could still shock the world. After all, they do have the sport’s most outstanding player, a bevy of offensive options around him and a coach who is considered one of the best minds at any level of football. Here are three reasons why Oklahoma can win the playoff. Keep in mind that this piece does not necessarily reflect my individual picks for the playoff games. 

1. The offense is the most efficient in college football with the best player: By now you surely know that Oklahoma is driven by its offense. And while the old saying goes that defense wins championships, three of the playoff’s four champions ranked in the top 15 nationally in scoring offense. The Sooners, of course, have the top offense in college football with the most outstanding player in quarterback Kyler Murray, this year’s Heisman Trophy winner. 

While the Sooners certainly put up points, there really aren’t any empty calories in how they do it. Oklahoma has run 859 plays this season, tied for 69th in the country. Its 8.75 yards per play, though, ranks first. OU is also No. 1 in touchdowns scored (85) and yards per passing attempt (11.6), plus No. 2 in rushing yards per attempt (6.67). Murray’s passer rating (205.72) is not only best in college football, it obliterates the previous record held by his predecessor, Baker Mayfield, who had a 198.92 rating during his own Heisman season in 2017. 

Oklahoma’s offense is not a dink-and-dunk, finesse type. To be sure, it has speed to burn with wideouts Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb, who use their quickness and route-running to create separation in one-on-one situations. However, they’re extremely capable of getting vertical quickly. Murray is a blazing fast runner who, when he makes a decision to go north-south, can outrun anyone on the field. The offensive line is tough and won the Joe Moore Award for best unit. The backfield may end up with as many as two or three 1,000-yard rushers (Kennedy Brooks already has 1,021 yards with Trey Sermon and Murray not far behind at 928 and 892 yards, respectively). 

There simply aren’t many weaknesses to this group because they make almost every play count. Say what you will about Big 12 defenses, but there are enough examples of Oklahoma having success with this group against supposedly superior defenses — Ohio State and Georgia a year ago come to mind — that it’s proven to work. 

2. Coach Lincoln Riley draws up a game plan as well as anyone: A lazy, yet often regurgitated take this time of year is that Alabama will be able to shut down whatever “high school offense” it’s going to face because coach Nick Saban has had a month to prepare for it. First of all, this is provably false. Oklahoma scored 45 points on Alabama in a Sugar Bowl win in 2014. Ohio State put up 42 on Alabama the following season in the first playoff semifinal. While this is an excellent Crimson Tide defense, Saban’s defenses were top-10 units in those years as well. 

Besides, Saban isn’t the only coach with a bunch of time to prepare. Riley has the same amount of time and he’s one of football’s finest offensive minds (so good, in fact, that he’s already been linked to openings in the NFL). Riley draws up game plans as well as any coach in the game, using misdirection, RPOs and even triple option concepts liberally to get the matchups he wants. 

Riley has a Heisman winner who is an accurate passer and decisive, fast north-south runner taking the snap on every play. He has pass-catchers capable of creating their own separation and making contested catches. He has tough running backs and an award-winning offensive line to block. Riley has no shortage of options and he uses them wisely and creatively. 

3. The defense may not be good — at all — but it is opportunistic: A commonly held belief is that Oklahoma would be a national title-caliber team if its defense was even adequate and not downright terrible. (Seriously, it’s b-a-d.) I’m not sure it even needs to be adequate, just opportunistic. Look, I’m not going to even try to defend the indefensible because there’s no way you can spin the numbers. The Soonerse are tied for 96th nationally in points per game (32.4), 101st in yards per play allowed (6.03), 107th in points per drive (2.75, and somehow even worse at 2.82 points per drive when facing long possessions of 80 yards or more), and literally dead freakin’ last in red zone touchdown percentage (85.11). Even if they had all the time in the world to prepare for the next two games, they aren’t getting any better here. 

So when you can’t get off the field in the traditional sense, you need to get takeaways. Defense and special teams have forced just 11 on the year, which ranks ninth in the Big 12 and 120th nationally. Again — not great, right? But here’s the thing: Of those 11 takeaways, seven have translated into points off of turnovers, including six touchdowns. Two more takeaways — interceptions against Army and Iowa State — ended the respective games. Add in a key safety off of a cornerback blitz in the Big 12 Championship Game win over Texas, and Oklahoma actually does a decent job of getting points with defense, either directly or by giving its offense another chance to score. 

Oklahoma isn’t going to shut down anyone in the next two games, but it won 12 games already with almost zero margin for error during most of the season. Getting into a shootout won’t get this team out of its comfort zone. All it needs is about two or three defining non-offensive plays to give itself a real chance. 

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