Following up on last season’s surprising run to the College Football Playoff, Oklahoma has become a popular pick to earn a spot in the four-team tournament again in 2016. Even though the Sooners have enough star power to win over pundits, the case for them to make the final four for the second year in a row is far from open and shut.
There’s a daunting schedule in front of them that includes non-conference games against Houston and Ohio State. Additionally, the loss of standout receiver Sterling Shepard to graduation robs the offense of its most reliable target in the passing game.
And those aren’t even among the biggest reasons to be bearish on OU’s chances of another Playoff bid.
Three Reasons Oklahoma Will Reach the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. The Quarterback Position
Baker Mayfield made an immediate impact on the OU offense last year. He adroitly piloted the Air Raid, and his confidence rubbed off on his supporting cast.
With a year as the starter under his belt, Mayfield has that much more experience running the offense. Likewise, coordinator Lincoln Riley should possess an even better handle on how to best leverage the skills of his quarterback and the players around him. Look for Mayfield and the Sooner O to operate with a level of precision and efficiency that surpasses last season’s dangerous edition.
2. The Trenches
If you’re looking for the biggest positive for the future of OU’s program, take a gander at the offensive and defensive lines. At times throughout the last few years, both were home to collections of upperclassmen that never quite fulfilled their potential and newcomers that struggled to stick with the team.
Now, three rapidly maturing returning starters - Orlando Brown, Jonathan Alvarez and Dru Samia - will lead the O-line in the fall. Meanwhile, OU’s front three has some seasoned veterans in Jordan Wade, Charles Walker and Matt Dimon getting backed up by talented newbies such as Neville Gallimore and Marquise Overton.
Head coach Bob Stoops and his staff clearly made beefing up the lines a priority. The results will keep paying off for the immediate future.
Podcast: Official 2016 Big 12 Preview
3. Special Teams
Punting and kicking aren’t sexy, but they win or lose more games than most fans would care to admit. In his first season at OU, Austin Seibert pulled double duty last fall and showed why he was thought to be the top kicking prospect in the country in the 2015 recruiting class.
Seibert gives Stoops a reliable option to help his team consistently win field position battles and convert on scoring chances when the offense stalls.
Three Reasons Oklahoma Won’t Reach the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. The Quarterback Position
Yeah, sure, Mayfield is great. OU has one of the best QBs in the country on the top line of its depth chart. Immediately behind him, however, sits true freshman Austin Kendall. After Kendall, it thins out into walk-on territory.
Mayfield’s swashbuckling style puts him in harm’s way on a regular basis, and he has a history of concussions. Still, he has shown no signs of dialing it back to protect himself. If Mayfield misses significant time this season, the Sooners can kiss their hopes of a conference title or Playoff bid goodbye.
2. Unproven Linebackers
When combined with the graduations of Eric Striker and Devante Bond, Dom Alexander’s unexpected departure for the NFL in the spring elevated the linebacker unit from “area of concern” to “massive, gaping hole” for position coaches Mike Stoops and Tim Kish.
Veteran inside linebacker Jordan Evans should calm some fears in his final year with the squad. However, Stoops and Kish are counting on sophomore Tay Evans to fill the void left in the middle by Alexander and junior Ogbonnia “Obo” Okoronkwo to man the rush linebacker spot vacated by Bond.
Heavy deployment of OU’s nickel package should work well enough against some of the more finesse offenses on the schedule, but the D will likely need touted freshman Caleb Kelly to grow up fast to play strong-side linebacker against downhill-running opponents.
3. The Pass Rush (or Lack of It)
The Sooners tallied 39 sacks in 2015, the second most in the Big 12 and the eighth most in the country. Their ability to get to opposing quarterbacks aided in the team finishing in the top 10 nationally in passer rating.
Striker, Bond, Alexander and defensive end Charles Tapper accounted for roughly half of those sacks. Now that they’re gone, OU is searching for new candidates to harass opponents’ passers. Obo and the aforementioned Walker seem like two of the more obvious picks. Keep an eye on true freshman Mark Jackson as well.
A whole lot went right for the Sooners last season in their march to the College Football Playoff. They survived close scrapes against Tennessee and TCU. Some of the Big 12's top teams were missing their starting quarterbacks versus OU. Oklahoma made it through the year with relatively few major injuries.
Who's to say if the Sooners needed those good breaks to make it to the final four; they got them nonetheless. Chances are that the 2016 squad will face a little more adversity, especially when facing a non-conference slate that features Houston and Ohio State.
Top to bottom, Bob Stoops has the best team in the Big 12. That should be good enough to secure his 10th conference crown. However, there are just enough landmines hiding among OU's 12 regular season games to keep the Sooners out of the postseason tournament.
— 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.