The Oklahoma Sooners are learning to live without Bob Stoops on the sidelines for the first time in nearly two decades.
In Lincoln Riley, OU’s detractors likely see a 33-year-old with zero experience as a head coach. Pro-OU factions probably look at him as one of the hottest coaching commodities on the planet. One side is speculating that the high-pressure job will swallow him whole; the other sees an energetic breath of fresh air tasked with following in the footsteps of a coach who appeared to be banging up against his ceiling for more than a decade.
How the transition at head coach will impact OU’s football team this season is impossible to predict. We do know plenty about the guys who will actually take the field, though. The fact of that matter is that they will have a lot more to do with where their team ends up this season than their new coach.
Three Reasons Oklahoma Will Reach the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Baker Mayfield
The underdog storyline surrounding Mayfield has given way to the reality that he is now one of college football’s most celebrated stars. A 22-4 record as a starter and two straight finishes in the top three in the country in passer rating have a lot to do with that.
Mayfield brings a veteran presence to OU’s offense to go along with a masterful command of head coach Lincoln Riley’s version of the Air Raid. The Sooner QB has to prove that he can excel without Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon beside him in the backfield, but even if Mayfield’s numbers fall off this year, OU still has a great shot at winning every time he takes the field.
If OU doesn’t have the best quarterback in the country, he’s awfully close.
2. Offensive line
Although Mayfield is well known for his improvisational skills under pressure, he probably won’t have to showcase them as often this season. Arguably the best offensive line in the country will be protecting him.
Potential first-round NFL draft pick Orlando Brown headlines the unit at left tackle. The line is bookended by an equally intriguing prospect in Bobby Evans. In between them, guards Ben Powers and Dru Samia and center Erick Wren will flatten their fair share of defenders.
A stellar line will help the Sooners survive all the high-profile losses at the skill positions.
3. The edges
Buttressing one end of OU’s defensive line this year will be Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, the senior edge rusher who tallied nine sacks a year ago. On the other side, the Sooners have rising star Caleb Kelly, a do-everything linebacker who is just as comfortable in pass coverage as he is when he’s getting after the quarterback.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops will build his scheme this season around OU’s stars on the edges. Their complementary skill sets should create all kinds of problems for opponents.
Three Reasons Oklahoma Won’t Reach the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Inside linebacker
For as stacked as the Sooners are on the outside, they’re equally unproven at inside at linebacker.
Senior Emmanuel Beal probably has the inside track at one of the two spots. Beal played well enough after Tay Evans’ retirement pushed him into service, but he struggled to stand his ground against the run.
Meanwhile, the other spot inside might come down to a battle between redshirt freshman Jon-Michael Terry and true frosh Kenneth Murray. While both could turn into quality players down the line, counting on them to lock things down right away seems foolhardy.
2. Defensive line
Continuing a theme, the interior of OU’s defense doesn’t instill much confidence in the Sooners’ ability to slow opponents.
Defensive tackle Neville Gallimore will likely play in the NFL one day, and his counterpart Matt Romar creates problems for opposing blockers when he can stay on the field. Senior defensive end D.J. Ward has held up well enough over the course of his career.
The issues start when you drill down beneath the first team. Like Romar, Marquise Overton has trouble staying healthy. Promising sophomore Amani Bledsoe will reportedly miss the first four games of the season after testing positive for a banned supplement. The rest of the candidates for playing time have yet to distinguish themselves in real game action or in reports from practices.
3. Upheaval at safety
The indefinite suspension of Will Sunderland raises further questions about the safeties on OU’s defense, a group that already faced plenty of uncertainty heading into the season.
While it’s not entirely clear that Sunderland would have won the spot next to Steven Parker in the Sooners’ defensive backfield, his athleticism made him a tantalizing option for a starting role. Instead, Will Johnson and Kahlil Haughton will battle it out to get the nod.
Haughton has yet to make much of a mark in extended action. At the same time, Johnson’s long-term health issues mean it’s difficult to trust he will be available all that often this year.
Even in the wake of Stoops’ departure, OU should be considered the odds-on favorite to win the Big 12 this season. The Sooners have the right personnel at the right positions to beat any and all challengers from the conference, especially considering the league now has a mandated rematch in its championship game.
Road trips to Ohio State, Oklahoma State and Kansas State do sound daunting, however. Factor in an improved TCU team and the annual Red River game in Dallas, and you have a season with plenty of potential to capsize.
The Stoops-Riley transition will almost certainly push some pundits off the OU bandwagon. Nothing about the changeover, though, should keep this team from contending for the conference crown and a bid to the College Football Playoff. Both – or even just one – would make for an exciting start to the new era in Norman.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 8
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 11-2 (8-1 Big 12)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9.5
— 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.