The Oklahoma Sooners are back in the College Football Playoff for the third consecutive season, and for the fourth time in the six-year history of the event. While Oklahoma has yet to win a semifinal matchup, and the No. 4 Sooners enter the Peach Bowl as heavy underdogs to the top-seeded LSU Tigers, there’s hope. We explore five reasons why Oklahoma could beat LSU Saturday in Atlanta.
5 Reasons Why Oklahoma Will Win the Peach Bowl
1. Quarterback Jalen Hurts
It all starts at quarterback. And sure, LSU’s Joe Burrow snapped Oklahoma’s streak of two consecutive Heisman Trophy winners, but Hurts finished second to Burrow in the voting, solidifying his standing as one of the best players in college football.
Hurts proved to be a perfect fit in head coach Lincoln Riley’s offense, and he provided a smooth transition for the Sooners in 2019. The graduate transfer completed 71.8 percent of his passes for 3,634 yards and 32 touchdowns in the regular season. Though turnovers are a concern, and he tossed seven interceptions and had a few ill-timed fumbles, Hurts led the nation with an average of 11.8 yards per pass attempt. He also ran for 1,255 yards (which ranked No. 21 nationally and second among FBS quarterbacks) and scored 18 times on the ground (more than all but six other players in the regular season).
It’s also worth pointing out Hurts has faced LSU multiple times already in his career. Though he hasn’t had much success passing against the Tigers (he’s 21-for-43 for 290 yards, with one touchdown and one interception in two starts — both wins), Hurts is well-versed when it comes to facing LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s scheme.
On that note...
2. LSU is susceptible defensively
Aranda is the highest-paid assistant coach in college football, and for good reason because his units have consistently ranked among the nation’s best. But the Tigers have been less than dominant in 2019. While the explosiveness of the new-look LSU offense has played a role, some of the blame falls on the coaching staff and players.
LSU comes into the Peach Bowl ranked No. 26 in the FBS in yards allowed per play (5.04) , a slight tick upward from its 2018 performance (4.81, No. 21). LSU has allowed 3.61 yards per rushing attempt, which ranks No. 27 overall, and is actually an improvement since last year when the Tigers allowed 3.87 yards per attempt (No. 41).
Nevertheless, LSU allowed 402 rushing yards to Ole Miss, including 212 by quarterback John Rhys Plumlee. While Plumlee wasn’t the only opposing signal-caller that was a threat to run against the Tigers, he’s the only one that comes close in comparison to Hurts’ ground-gaining ability.
Aranda’s secondary includes Thorpe Award winner Grant Delpit and freshman All-American and future superstar Derek Stingley Jr. But the unit has surrendered 6.4 yards per pass attempt this season. Though that mark ranks among the top 20 in the country, it’s a step back from the 5.8 yards per pass the Tigers allowed in 2018, which was eighth-best in the country. It’s also reason to hope Hurts can find explosive receiver and Biletnikoff Award finalist CeeDee Lamb (58 receptions, 1,208 yards, 14 TDs) and his fellow playmakers for big plays.
After all, Texas and Alabama — arguably the only two teams LSU has played this season with receiver talent on par with the Sooners — both threw for more than 400 yards against the Tigers.
3. Oklahoma has improved on defense
There’s no denying LSU ranks better than the Sooners in every major statistical category defensively. But the gap is much closer than it was a year ago because of the improvements the Sooners have made under new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. Oklahoma allowed 6.13 yards per play in 2018, which ranked No. 102 nationally. The Sooners have cut that number to 5.29, which ranks 41st.
The biggest turnaround for OU — which led the Big 12 in total defense (330.6 ypg), rushing defense (132.08), and passing defense (198.5) during the regular season, has been its performance against the pass. Oklahoma allowed 294.0 passing yards per game and 8.4 yards per attempt in 2018, both of which ranked last in the conference and finished No. 130 and No. 109, respectively in the country. This season, the Sooners rank No. 24 in pass defense, and No. 33 in yards allowed per pass attempt (6.7).
Does that mean the OU secondary can put a lid on one of the most dynamic groups of receivers in the country, which includes Biletnikoff winner Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, Terrance Marshall, Thaddeus Moss and depth at every spot? Not necessarily, especially since the Sooners are banged up at defensive back (Oklahoma will be without starting safety Delarrin Turner-Yell because of a broken collarbone) and top pass rusher Ronnie Perkins will sit out due to a suspension. But the Sooners are unlikely to allow 7.54 yards per play as they did against Alabama in the playoff last year.
4. The offensive line
The LSU offensive line won the Joe Moore Award, given annually to the best unit in college football. However, Oklahoma, which won the honor in 2018, was a semifinalist this year despite replacing four starters and has a strong case to make this year. The Sooners’ offensive line paved the way for an average of 251.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks 11th nationally. Oklahoma has averaged 6.08 yards per rushing attempt, which is fourth overalll.
The Sooners have also surrendered just 21 sacks, which ranks No. 37 nationally, and equates to a 5.71 percent sack rate. LSU, which ran for 167.5 yards per game and 4.85 yards per carry this season, has allowed 29 sacks — 93rd in the country — and a sack rate of 6.20 percent.
5. Health of LSU RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Though Oklahoma also won’t be at full strength due to injuries and suspensions, LSU suffered arguably the most significant injury that could impact the Peach Bowl. Leading rusher Edwards-Helaire is highly questionable to play against the Sooners because of a hamstring injury.
Edwards-Helaire ran for 1,290 yards and 16 touchdowns during the regular season, and also caught 50 passes for 399 yards and another score. The junior was named first-team All-SEC and has proven himself to be one of the most valuable players in the resurgent LSU offense. Though the Tigers are well-stocked with talent at the running back position, and could turn to the freshman trio of Tyrion Davis-Price (270 rushing yards, 6 TDs), John Emery, Jr. (182, 3) and Chris Curry (96 yds.) in a pinch, it would be a big blow to LSU’s balance for Edwards-Helaire to be sidelined, or even limited, by the injury.