After opting out last season, two-time 1,000-yard rusher Kennedy Brooks is expected back this fall
The Oklahoma Sooners enacted their revenge on Iowa State by beating the Cyclones 27-21 in the Big 12 Championship Game. The win secured a sixth straight conference title for the Sooners, including one in each of Lincoln Riley's four seasons as head coach.
However, because of both the early season loss to Iowa State and an upset at the hands of Kansas State the week before, Oklahoma's seven-game winning streak and Big 12 championship weren't enough for the Sooners to make it back to the College Football Playoff. Oklahoma settled for a Cotton Bowl bid against an undermanned Florida squad and took care of business with a 55-20 win, capping off a 9-2 season and inching up to No. 6 in the final AP Top 25.
The Sooners enter 2021 with a lot of momentum and high expectations. Oklahoma will likely be favored to win the Big 12 yet again, and Riley's squad is a threat to make it back to the playoff for the fourth time in five years. They could finally break through and win the program's first national championship since 2000. Here we explore just three of the reasons for optimism about the Sooners.
1. Spencer Rattler
Riley is known for his work with quarterbacks, having coached three Heisman Trophy finalists (including two winners), but Rattler will be the first to start for Oklahoma in consecutive seasons since Riley was named head coach in 2017. A five-star signee in the 2019 recruiting class, Rattler is the first signal-caller to be hand-picked out of high school to play for Riley. The Arizona native has an excellent skill set, including great command in the pocket. Rattler also gained valuable experience in 2020 that should pay off in 2021.
As a redshirt freshman last year, Rattler started 11 games, throwing for 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He completed 67.5 percent of his passes and averaged 9.6 yards per pass attempt and added 160 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Rattler also overcame a humbling moment when he was benched in the first half against Texas. He returned after halftime and led the Sooners to a 53-45 victory in four overtimes, and never lost his grip on the starting spot for the remainder of the season. Now, Rattler is one of the top returning quarterbacks in the country, a preseason Heisman candidate, and the most pivotal piece of the high-powered Oklahoma offense.
2. Improvement on defense
Early in Riley's tenure, the Oklahoma defense took most of the blame for the Sooners' poor showing in the playoff. It's understandable, given the fact Oklahoma surrendered an average of 54.0 points per game in postseason losses to Georgia, Alabama, and LSU to end his first three seasons. But the arrival of defensive coordinator Alex Grinch helped the unit take a big step forward from 2018 to 2019, shaving six points and nearly 100 total yards per game from the ledger. In 2020, Oklahoma held opponents to 21.7 points and 350.6 total yards per contest — the best for the program since 2009 and 2013, respectively. Grinch is set to return for his third season in Norman, and his defense might be a legitimate strength in 2021.
According to ESPN's Bill Connelly, Oklahoma is set to return 75 percent of its defensive production from last year's unit, which ranks 51st in the country. Among the important pieces that won't be back are starting cornerbacks Tre Norwood and Tre Brown, who entered the 2021 NFL Draft after combining for eight interceptions in 2020, and nickel back Brendan Radley-Hiles, who made a surprise move into the transfer portal. Premier edge rusher Ronnie Perkins, another early draft entrant who was limited to six games as a junior because of a carryover suspension from 2019, will also be missed.
Nevertheless, the Sooners expect each of their top eight tacklers to return, including emerging stars Isaiah Thomas and Nik Bonitto. Thomas and Bonitto combined for 23.5 tackles for a loss and 16.5 sacks last year. The front seven as a whole should be one of the best in the Big 12, if not the country, with junior linemen Perrion Winfrey and Marcus Stripling and super senior LaRon Stokes returning, as well as 2020 opt-out Jalen Redmond and linebackers DaShaun White, Brian Asamoah, and David Ugwoegbu.
Safeties Pat Fields and Delarrin Turner-Yell are also expected back after logging 576 and 518 snaps last seasons, respectively, according to PFF — more than any other Oklahoma defenders. Corners Woodi Washington and Jaden Davis were also on the field for more than 300 plays, so the secondary won't be without experience, either. Oklahoma also landed Tennessee transfer Keshawn Lawrence, the highest-rated Vols signee in 2020, as well as three four-star recruits in its own 2021 class, who join three four-star defensive backs from the 2020 crop.
3. Offensive playmakers
Running back was a question mark for Oklahoma entering 2020 following the offseason transfer of Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks' preseason decision to opt out. As with Perkins, the Sooners were also without Rhamondre Stevenson for the first five games, but when he returned, Stevenson quickly emerged as one of the best backs in the country, rushing for 665 yards and seven touchdowns and entering the 2021 NFL Draft. Second leading rusher T.J. Pledger, who ran for 451 yards and five scores, transferred to Utah.
But Brooks — who surpassed the 1,000 mark in rushing yards in both 2018 and 2019 and has 18 career rushing touchdowns — will return to the Oklahoma backfield, where he could be joined by Eric Gray, who ran for 1,311 yards and eight touchdowns for Tennessee from 2019-20 before transferring. Seth McGowan and Marcus Major add more depth to the position, so the rushing attack should be solid again in 2021. And there's even more to be excited about in the receiving corps.
Marvin Mims led the Sooners with 610 receiving yards and nine touchdowns as a true freshman last season, and sophomore Theo Wease matched his team-leading 37 receptions, on which he gained 530 yards with four scores. Fellow starter Drake Stoops is also set to return, as are some of the most interesting offensive chess pieces in the country in the tight end/H-back trio of Austin Stogner, Jeremiah Hall, and Mikey Henderson. And though wideout Charleston Rambo transferred to Miami, there's plenty of untapped potential left on the roster.
Theo Howard and Obi Obialo transferred to Oklahoma as seniors in 2020 but didn't make an impact and are eligible to return. Jadon Haselwood and Trejan Bridges each caught two touchdown passes as freshmen in 2019 and were expected to blossom into stars last year but managed just six receptions between them. Anything Riley gets from those four in 2021 would be a bonus. Add in top-50 prospects Mario Williams and Billy Bowman, and no matter who steps into a major role, it's easy to expect the Sooners to have one of the most dangerous offenses in college football again next season.