Some conference title races are almost decided, but the battle to claim the Big 12 championship is just getting started. Baylor hosts Oklahoma on Thursday night in a crucial conference matchup, with the Bears also needing to impress to have any shot at playing for the national title. Baylor ranks No. 6 in the latest release of the BCS standings, so style points and winning big certainly wouldn’t hurt as coach Art Briles’ team attempts to close the gap on the top five.
Baylor has been on a steady climb under Briles, while Oklahoma has been one of the more consistent teams in the nation. The Sooners have at least 10 wins in six out of the last seven seasons and are 32-8 over the last three years.
This game doesn’t necessarily represent a changing of the guard in the Big 12, but Oklahoma has a 21-1 series edge against Baylor. The Bears have never won in Norman but claimed the 2011 matchup between these two teams. For the most part, the Sooners easily handled Baylor in the early 2000s. However, the last two meetings have been decided by eight points or less. Again, it’s unfair to say there’s a changing of the guard in the Big 12, but it’s clear Baylor is closing the gap on Oklahoma and Texas, and a win on Thursday night would be another huge moment in Briles’ tenure in Waco.
Just how excited are the fans in Waco? The tarp in the south endzone of Floyd Casey Stadium is gone, allowing around 3,500 more fans to attend Thursday night’s matchup. Considering Baylor had some of the worst teams of the BCS era under former coach Kevin Steele, a sold out stadium on a Thursday night with national title implications is a good indicator of how far this program has developed under Briles.
Oklahoma vs. Baylor
Kickoff: 7:30 ET
TV Channel: Fox Sports 1
Spread: Baylor -15
Three Things to Watch
Baylor’s rushing attack vs. Oklahoma’s rush defense
Injuries hit Oklahoma’s defense hard earlier this season, as defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and linebacker Corey Nelson were lost for the year. Losing Nelson and Phillips hurt Oklahoma’s ability to stop the run in Big 12 games, as Texas recorded 255 yards on Oct. 12 and Kansas rushed for 185 yards on Oct. 19. After having their share of struggles on the ground in Big 12 play, the Sooners will have their toughest assignment of the season against Baylor. The Bears average 6.0 yards per carry in conference-only games and lead the Big 12 with an average of 294.8 yards per game on the ground. Running back Lache Seastrunk is a threat to score anytime he touches the ball (9.1 ypc, 11 TDs), but the Bears can also use Shock Linwood (8.1 ypc) and 230-pound battering ram Glasco Martin. Expect Baylor to attack the interior of Oklahoma’s rush defense, especially with an offensive line that averages 314 pounds per play. Guard Cyril Richardson is one of the best in the nation, and he will be clearing the way for Seastrunk and Martin to attack Oklahoma’s suspect run defense.
Oklahoma’s offense and controlling the clock
The Sooners are in transition on offense this season. Although former quarterback Landry Jones had his share of ups and downs, the passing attack just isn’t the same with Blake Bell at the helm. Bell seems to be getting more comfortable in Oklahoma’s offense with each start, but the junior has thrown just four touchdowns to three interceptions in Big 12 games. Baylor wants to get Oklahoma into a shootout, which clearly favors the high-scoring Bears’ offense. The Sooners will try to counter with a ball control approach that dominates the time of possession. In Big 12 games, Oklahoma ranks third in the conference in time of possession by averaging 31 minutes a game. Running backs Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch will test Baylor’s defense, which is allowing 160 yards per game on the ground. The Bears struggled to stop Kansas State earlier this year, which used a similar blueprint on offense.
Oklahoma’s secondary vs. Baylor’s receiving corps
While the Sooners have displayed a few leaks against the run, the secondary ranks No. 10 nationally against the pass. Oklahoma is allowing only 179.5 yards per game through the air, and Big 12 opponents have managed only six passing scores. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have played TCU, Texas and Kansas so far, but Oklahoma’s secondary gave Baylor fits last season. The Bears were held to 172 yards through the air, and quarterback Nick Florence completed only 12 of his 33 passes. New starter Bryce Petty doesn’t have Florence’s experience but is an upgrade in terms of talent. The junior is completing 69.3 percent of his throws and has only one interception on 176 attempts. Petty leads all FBS quarterbacks with 10 passing plays of 50 yards or more in 2013. And Baylor isn’t just Petty’s show, as receivers Antwan Goodley and Tevin Reese are each averaging over 20 yards per catch. This matchup will be the toughest one-on-one battle for Oklahoma’s secondary all year, with cornerbacks Zack Sanchez and Aaron Colvin under the microscope on Thursday night.
Key Players: Chuka Ndulue/Jordan Wade, DT, Oklahoma
If Oklahoma doesn’t win the battle at the point of attack, this one could get ugly. The Sooners don’t have to get pressure on Petty on every down, but the defense needs to prevent a repeat of what happened against Texas. Once the Longhorns were able to pound the rock, play-action passes opened up on the outside. Ndulue and Wade will have their hands full against a massive and effective Baylor offensive line. This duo has to keep Seastrunk in check, while disrupting Petty’s pocket when he drops back to pass.
Baylor is off to an easy 7-0 start, but the competition is about to increase. The Bears have yet to play a Big 12 team with a winning record, and Oklahoma had 10 days to prepare for Baylor’s high-powered offense. Will it make a difference? The Bears are better on defense this season, but the Sooners should be able to get their ground game on track. If Oklahoma dominates the line of scrimmage and controls the clock, the Sooners will be in good shape to leave Waco with a win. However, Baylor simply has too much firepower, and the defense – just like it did against Kansas State – makes enough timely plays to pull out the victory.
Prediction: Baylor 45, Oklahoma 34