Sooners, Bears meet in the Big 12's game of the year
The Oklahoma Sooners have won the last four Big 12 championships, and the biggest obstacle in front of a fifth straight crown may be the Baylor Bears. The undefeated Bears (9-0, 6-0 Big 12) actually lead in the conference standings, and they have an opportunity to put OU's hopes of a spot in the Big 12 title game in jeopardy this weekend.
The linesmakers don't seem to believe Baylor can do it. The Sooners (8-1, 5-1) come to Waco as 10-point favorites, a sign of the betting market's skepticism of the Bears.
Coming off a loss to Kansas State and a near-loss to Iowa State in its last two games, OU isn't exactly peaking at the moment. If the Sooners aren't sharper versus the Bears, Baylor has a great shot at an upset.
Here is what to watch in the Big 12's game of the year this weekend.
Oklahoma at Baylor
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Oklahoma -10
When Oklahoma Has the Ball
Averaging 48.4 points per game, the Sooners seemingly haven't lost a step on offense this year. However, closer observation shows they've been plagued by prolonged dry spells during games. In a loss to Kansas State, for example, OU failed to score in the third quarter, enabling the Wildcats to build up an 18-point lead. Last week against Iowa State, the Sooners scored just seven points in the entire second half as the Cyclones stormed back from a three-touchdown deficit.
QB Jalen Hurts is struggling to distribute the ball in the passing game like he did early in the season. Most of his throws are going to star receiver CeeDee Lamb, who leads the team with 44 receptions — 13 of those catches came in the last two contests.
More importantly, OU's offensive line has taken a clear step back from last year's group. Even though the Sooners continue to gash opponents on the ground, Hurts is feeling the heat from pass rushers. That pressure has spurred Hurts to abandon the pocket more quickly than head coach Lincoln Riley would probably like.
When Baylor Has the Ball
The Baylor offense has been an up-and-down unit all season. Lately, it has tended more to the down side. The Bears scored just 17 points in a too-close-for-comfort victory at West Virginia two weeks ago and a measly nine in regulation versus TCU last week.
You could blame the Bears' offensive struggles on a rash of turnovers: They gave the ball away a combined five times against TCU and WVU. If so, a chance to take on the Oklahoma defense may help Baylor get back on track. The Sooners haven't generated a takeaway in their last five games.
However, the Bears' anemic scoring likely goes beyond just turnovers. They've averaged just three yards per rush in the last two weeks. Moreover, protecting quarterback Charlie Brewer also has proven especially difficult this season. The Bears have allowed 24 sacks on the year, which ranks 101st nationally. WVU sacked him seven times, while the Horned Frogs got to him twice. That sounds more promising for a defensive line that prides itself on disrupting opponents.
Opponents have found success this season attacking Oklahoma on the edge with their ground games. Can Baylor use its running game to make the Sooners pay for playing smaller, quicker personnel on defense? Possibly, but OU would likely prefer the Bears try to win that way than by targeting receivers Denzel Mims and Tyquan Thorton down the field.
The key issue for the Bears is their ability to bait Jalen Hurts and the rest of the OU offense into the kinds of mistakes and turnovers that we've seen lately from the Sooners. A couple of short fields would put Baylor in position to capitalize for easy points and take the burden off the Bears' erratic offense to keep pace with OU.
At some point, however, turnover margin has to swing back to the Sooners. That may not happen this week, but if it does, the Bears have little hope of pulling off this win. In fact, OU could enjoy a runaway victory in that scenario.
At the end of the day, Baylor probably needs a few fortunate breaks to win this game. Otherwise, this sets up as the kind of win to which the Sooners have become accustomed in recent years, with OU keeping the Bears at arms' length throughout the second half.
Prediction: Oklahoma 38, Baylor 24
— 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.