The Oklahoma Sooners have qualified for the College Football Playoff three times in the last four years. It looks like a tough climb ahead for the four-time reigning Big 12 champs to get back there in 2019.
Of course, that was the prevailing sentiment before the 2018 season, too. Kyler Murray seamlessly slid into the opening at quarterback created by Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield’s graduation, and the Sooners didn’t miss a beat.
Assuming Murray is off to the minor leagues or the NFL, head coach Lincoln Riley will spend the offseason figuring out how to replace another Heisman recipient at QB. The Sooners still have plenty of reasons to believe they will return to the final four in the coming season, though. Here are five of them.
5 Reasons Why Oklahoma Will Return to the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. Alex Grinch and a remade defense
Veteran defensive coordinator Mike Stoops received his walking papers in the middle of the 2018 season, paving the way for new blood on that side of the ball. Riley responded with a big-money offer to tear Grinch away from his position as co-coordinator at Ohio State.
It’s easy to understand why Riley would covet Grinch’s services. He worked miracles as the defensive coordinator for the Washington State Cougars from 2015-17, a run that caught the eye of none other than Urban Meyer.
Grinch now gets a chance to unleash his havoc-inducing schemes on Big 12 offenses.
2. An experienced defense
The good news for Grinch as he rehabilitates the D is that he’s not working with an inexperienced crew. Seventeen of the team’s top 20 tacklers from 2018 will be back. That group includes No. 1 tackler Kenneth Murray, sack leader Ronnie Perkins and top cornerback Tre Brown.
On the flip side, all of those returning contributors were part of a severely underwhelming defense. Grinch and the rest of the defensive staff will have their hands full breaking bad habits and installing a new system with players drilled in the prior scheme. At least he’s not working with players getting up to speed with the college game.
3. Loads of talent at the offensive skill positions
Quarterback Kyler Murray walked away with the Heisman Trophy at the end of the year, but he had the support of a loaded supporting cast.
OU will miss speedy receiver Marquise Brown, who caught 75 balls for 1,318 yards and two touchdowns in ‘18. On the other hand, the Sooners could have an ever stronger overall receiving corps back in the fall led by rising juniors CeeDee Lamb and Grant Calcaterra. Lee Morris and Charleston Rambo will return, and three freshmen rated as five-star prospects by the Rivals recruiting service are also joining the mix: Trejan Bridges, Jadon Haselwood and Theo Wease.
OU’s stable of running backs will include one player who topped a thousand yards rushing on the season (Kennedy Brooks) and another who came 53 yards short of the mark in Trey Sermon. After a year in the strength-and-conditioning program, T.J. Pledger should find himself in line for more carries as a sophomore.
4. Two anchors on the offensive line
The Sooners’ big uglies have played an instrumental role in their offensive dominance. They will need to replace three members of the 2018 unit, including a potential first-day NFL draft pick in right tackle Cody Ford and two multi-year starters at guard, Dru Samia and Ben Powers.
Fortunately for offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, talented center Creed Humphrey will return. It also sounds likely that veteran tackle Bobby Evans will come back for one final season in Norman. Assuming Evans returns, he and Humphrey will be joined by three new faces from OU’s stockpile of talented rotation players such as Tyrese Robinson and Adrian Ealy.
5. A Big 12 in flux
Take a look at all the transition across the Big 12.
New coaching staffs are taking over at Kansas, Kansas State, Texas Tech and West Virginia. Oklahoma State needs a new quarterback and offensive coordinator. Iowa State is losing its top offensive weapons, running back David Montgomery and receiver Hakeem Butler. Seven of TCU’s top 10 tacklers are leaving – which is also the case at Texas.
The Sooners have plenty of their own transitions to work through, such as the aforementioned shift in defensive scheme and the new faces on the offensive line. Those changes look more manageable with so many programs around the league in a state of flux.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.
(Top photo courtesy of @OU_Football)