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Oklahoma Sooners

With a historically bad defense, Oklahoma is out to prove offense wins championships, too

NORMAN, Okla. – Spend enough time around Oklahoma’s football facility, and you sense the Sooners don’t care.

They don’t care they’re two-touchdown underdogs to No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal. They don’t care about the Nick Saban aura, the Tua Tagovailoa era or the error of their ways.

To be specific, that would be an epically bad defense. So bad that the defense put forward by No. 4 Oklahoma is the worst to every play for a national championship (based on total yards allowed in a season, beginning with the BCS era in 1998). 

And it’s not even close, which is kind of why the Sooners carry themselves a certain way. Oh sure, they care about the big picture winning their first national championship since 2000, but that picture also includes a confidence they can outscore anyone to win … because Oklahoma pretty much has to outscore everyone to win.

“If you are a senior on this football team at Oklahoma right now, what would you want me to say?” OU coach Lincoln Riley said. “Are you worried about the next defensive coordinator, or are you worried about winning a national championship?”

Swash meet buckle.

The Sooners having a chip on their collective shoulder pads is not a new concept. Barry Switzer used to casually refer to “hangin’ half a hundred” (50 points) on opponents.

This OU offense is the highest scoring in college football in five years (49.5 points per game); however, the Sooners are also 109th nationally in total defense, giving up almost 450 yards per game. They are last nationally in pass defense.

You want dichotomy? Four of the top five offensive seasons in Oklahoma history (based on yards gained) have occurred since 2015. Meanwhile, the last three seasons have been the worst defensively in school history. 

2018

7,513 yards (3rd)

5,825 yards (82nd – worst)

2017

8,114 yards (1st – best)

5,529 yards (80th)

2016

7,212 yards (4th)

5,616 yards (81st)

2015

6,893 yards (5th)

5,738 yards (74th)

2014

6,041 yards (12th)

4,974 yards (76th)

* Stats to date | Sooners rankings out of 82 seasons since NCAA began keeping full stats (1937)

Riley has tried to find a balance. He fired defensive coordinator Mike Stoops two days after a 48-45 loss to Texas on Oct. 6. The defense so much in question actually got worse after that, giving up almost 37 points per game in the final seven contests. 

“I think people realize [defensive] improvement needs to be made,” said OU athletic director Joe Castiglione. “But not to channel the inner Herm Edwards, ‘You play to win the game.’ What we have here is people trying to find ways to win games in this league.”

All of it has added up to perhaps the most entertaining 12-1 team of the modern era. The offense produced Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Kyler Murray and an All-American wide receiver in Marquise Brown.

There have been only two consensus All-America defensive Sooners since 2007, none since 2010. That suggests the problem may be bigger than the defensive coordinator. Ruffin McNeill was promoted from defensive line coach to DC after Stoops’s firing.

Switzer’s Oklahoma teams were stocked with snarling, swift, punishing defenders destined for the NFL, stardom and maybe the hall of fame.

The Sooners of modern times have produced only four defenders drafted higher than the fourth round since 2009. Eight times in the previous nine years, Oklahoma had at least one defender taken in the first three rounds, including first-rounders Tommie Harris (2004), Andre Woolfolk (2003) and Roy Williams (2002).

“It’s a little bit unconventional when we think of championship football,” said Dusty Dvoracek, a former all-Big 12 nose tackle at OU who spent six years in the NFL.

“There’s proof in the pudding that you’ve got to be able to stop people. That said, as long you have more points than the other team, you can win the game.”

Oklahoma essentially has a playoff mulligan in proving college football has reached a tipping point: Offensive excellence has become so pervasive, a team overwhelmingly tilted in that direction can win a championship.

Don’t laugh, SEC elitists. It almost happened last year when Oklahoma blew a 17-point lead over Georgia in the CFP semifinal. The Sooners scored 48 and lost in overtime leaving their fans to wonder, “What if?”

What if that Baker Mayfield-led offense had prevailed? Would it have taken out Alabama in the CFP National Championship? Consider this: OU probably wouldn’t have been held to 23 points (Georgia’s total in 26-23 overtime loss).

The last time the nation’s No. 1 scoring team won it all was Texas in 2005. That team also finished in the top 10 in scoring defense.

This season, Georgia in the SEC Championship Game is the only team to come within 23 of Alabama, Oklahoma’s Cotton Bowl opponent. Meanwhile, almost half of Oklahoma’s 13 games have been decided by 10 points or less. The Sooners are 5-1 in those games. In the previous 18 such results going back to 2014, OU is 12-6.

“We’re as battle-tested in as anybody in close games this year,” Riley said.

Bashing the Big 12’s defensive deficiencies is a national pastime. Half the league has given up at least 30 points per game. The number of points (421) and yards (5,825) are the most ever surrendered by Oklahoma — with at least one game remaining.

The average of 32.4 points allowed is second only to the 1996 squad coached by John Blake. That was during the worst three-year stretch in the programs history (12-22 from 1996-98).

“This isn’t a team that just has a quarterback and can go fast,” Dvoracek said. “They can line up and run it down your throat. They are good enough to potentially block against a Clemson defensive front where some other Big 12 schools have a gimmicky offense.”

This time, the CFP Selection Committee chose Oklahoma over Ohio State and Georgia essentially because of that offensive excellence. OU’s only loss was by three at the gun to Texas in that first Red River Rivalry.

The best and worst of OU was on display in that game. The Sooners fell behind 45-24, but three scoring drives totaling 3:16 got OU back to a 45-45 tie. That left too much time on the clock (2:38) for Texas to work in position for the winning field goal.

“Lincoln is the brightest offensive mind not only in college football but in all of football,” Dvoracek said. “That being said, I’m a defensive guy. I truly believe you’ve got to get stops. But you can really be good on defense and give up 40 points tackling and winning the line of scrimmage. We’ve seen that from Alabama and Clemson.”

In three playoff meetings, the Tide-Tigers games have averaged 60 combined points. That might be getting ahead of the story.

It should be no surprise that OU is 11-0 in Riley’s first two seasons when scoring at least 51 points. But in five of those games, the opponent scored at least 31. Under Riley, Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and West Virginia by a total of 18 points while scoring 62, 57 and 59.

“I enjoy close games,” Riley said. “I don’t necessarily like shootouts.”

Without saying it, the Sooners are having to admit it: If they are going to get to their first CFP game, they’re going to have to win a(nother) shootout.

Whether that’s a good or bad thing remains a philosophical argument: Defense wins championships. Fourteen of the last 15 national champions have sported a top-20 defense. Thirteen of those have finished in the top 10.

Oklahoma has given up the most yards of any Power Five bowl-eligible team. Only five other Power Five programs gave up more yards this season: Texas Tech, Ole Miss, Louisville, Illinois and Oregon State.

The next-worst defense to win a championship in the BCS era is Auburn (60th in 2010).  OU was 67th in total defense last season.

“I don’t really look into who criticizes us,” Murray said. “We know what had to be fixed, what has to be fixed. At the end of the day, you have to win the game. We did that.”

Viewed another way, this is a battle of the two highest-scoring conferences. Who would have thought the SEC (32.1 points per game per team) would be slightly behind the high-scoring Big 12 (32.5)?

“Winning is winning,” Riley said. “A close game, whether it’s 50-49 or it’s 13-10, you gotta be able to execute in close moments. That’s what is more important to us, being the very best in close moments.”

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