The Oklahoma Sooners captured their third consecutive Big 12 championship in 2017, catapulting them into a second appearance in the College Football Playoff in three years. It ended the same way as their last playoff trip, a semifinal knockout, and they’re ready to make another run at the postseason tournament this fall.
To get there, OU absolutely has to shore up a leaky defense that was bailed out on multiple occasions by Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield’s brilliance. Keeping the offense humming also is a must for the Sooners to have a shot at a final four bid.
Here are three reasons why Oklahoma will make the CFP again this season -- along with three reasons the Sooners will fall short.
Three Reasons Why Oklahoma Will Make it to the College Football Playoff in 2018
1. The defense has the most talent in years
Opponents regularly laid bare OU’s deficiencies on defense last season. It culminated in Georgia running wild on the Sooners in the Rose Bowl and sending them home from the College Football Playoff.
OU went through a noticeable dry spell in defensive recruiting in the middle of the decade, which continued to hold the unit back last season. The last three recruiting cycles have brought an influx of blue-chip defenders to Norman. A number of those players are maturing and starting to fill in openings across the D.
2. Lincoln Riley
After nearly two decades under the watchful eye of Bob Stoops, OU’s 36-year-old head coach (above, right) is putting his stamp on the program. He’s only in his second season, but OU football appears to have received a jolt from the change.
Riley’s time in the spotlight has established him as one of the hottest offensive tacticians in the sport. The Sooners will remain dangerous on the offensive side of the ball so long as he’s calling the shots.
3. The offense is still stacked
You know the names of the decorated departures: Baker Mayfield, Mark Andrews, Orlando Brown, Dmitri Flowers. Get ready for a new crop of award winners.
Three of five starters return from one of the premier offensive lines in the country, including arguably its two best players, tackle Bobby Evans and guard Ben Powers. Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon are still running the rock. You’ll have a hard time finding a better duo at receiver than Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb.
Of course, there’s one huge question still to be answered about the outlook for the Sooners on offense…
Three Reasons Why Oklahoma Won’t Make it to the College Football Playoff in 2018
1. Bye, bye, Baker
The 2017 Heisman Trophy winner will go down as one of the best players in OU history, and he demonstrated why he deserves that mantle by carrying the team last season. Aside from his skills on the field, Mayfield provided valuable leadership in a team that didn’t have many vocal personalities.
The Sooners not only need a new QB who can operate the offense at a high level. They need some new lead dogs to replace No. 6 in the locker room.
2. Rushing the passer
OU’s defense struggled for the last two years to consistently pressure opposing QBs. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo’s graduation means the Sooners are searching for a new edge player to replace what little heat they were generating in the first place.
Riley is harping this offseason on the need for coordinator Mike Stoops’ defense to play more aggressively this season. That likely means implementing more blitzes into OU’s base defensive scheme. That sounds like trouble, given the Sooners’ recent struggles in coverage.
3. Safety looks shaky
The safety position turned into a revolving door for OU last year. Injuries forced secondary coach Kerry Cooks to plumb his depth chart. The results were often ugly.
Veterans Will Johnson and Steven Parker are gone, offering opportunities for the younger rotation players of the past to take on larger roles this year. They haven’t given many indications yet that they are up to the task.
It would be difficult to overstate the impact that Baker Mayfield had on Oklahoma football. His leadership, competitive spirit and quarterbacking acumen resuscitated the program at a point when it appeared to be teetering on the edge of a downward spiral. Replacing him? Best of luck to the winner of the ongoing QB derby in Norman between Kyler Murray and Austin Kendall.
Mayfield’s bravado on and off the field tended to overshadow the fact that the Sooners took major steps towards fortifying their roster in recent years. The dip in talent from the heyday of Bob Stoops’ tenure had become noticeable near the end of it, but he took clear steps to get recruiting headed back in the right direction before he left. Lincoln Riley has picked up where he left off.
The challenge facing Riley and his coaching staff this season is building a more complete team. Riley appears well-equipped to tailor OU’s scheme to fit with a new quarterback and a wealth of playmakers, but the defense can’t go through the same ups and downs of 2017 and count on a peerless offense to keep the Sooners on the right side of the scoreboard.
As of now, OU still looks like the class of the Big 12 and one of the better bets in the country to secure a place in the College Football Playoff.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 10
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 11-2 (7-2, Big 12)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 10
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 10
-- 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.