12:00 PM EST, FOX – Line: Oklahoma -5.5, Over/Under: 63
With the Regular Season winding down the pressure is on to make a push for the Playoff, as the (No. 8) Oklahoma Sooners travel to Waco for a showdown with the (No. 13) Baylor Bears from McLane Stadium, that is sure to have plenty of implications on next week’s rankings. Winners of seventeen consecutive games dating back to last season, Oklahoma (9-0, 6-0 in Big XII) checking in at eighth in the the initial CFP Rankings was a bit surprising as the six-time reigning Big XII champions continued to hold that position following last weekend’s 52-21 drubbing of Texas Tech. Winning streaks and conference titles aside, the problem with the Sooners at this point is that their schedule simply doesn’t hold up against the teams ahead of them in the rankings, for apart from a thrilling 55-48 comeback victory over (then No. 21) Texas in the annual Red River Rivalry, they haven’t faced a single ranked opponent thus far. And even with that said, the Longhorns no longer occupy a place in either the AP or Coaches Polls at the moment. The other thing that has been working against (Head Coach) Lincoln Riley’s charges has been the fact that they haven’t been nearly as dominant as they have in past seasons, finding themselves in a number of close contests; it all started with a 40-35 affair with Tulane in the Season Opener, followed by close calls against Nebraska (23-16) and West Virginia (16-13), even trailing in the second half versus the latter, before needing a furious fourth quarter rally to escape their demise at hapless Kansas (35-23) of all teams. Needless to say, any team worthy of the Playoff may have an off-day, but suffering from this many has clearly served as cause for concern despite their still perfect record. Simply put, they’ve been unconvincing at this stage of the campaign, though there is still an opportunity to improve in that regard, and we’ll get to that shortly. In the meantime, what in the name of Brian Bosworth has been going in Norman, you ask? Well, as was the case in 2020, (Sophomore Quarterback) Spencer Rattler (75.0%, 1,438 YDS, 8.0 Y/A, 11 TD, 5 INT) struggled early, and unlike last season he lost his job for what appears to be the foreseeable future with (Freshman) Caleb Williams (71.6%, 1,189 YDS, 10.9 Y/A, 14 TD, 1 INT) replacing the heralded signal-caller midway through the battle with Texas. Oklahoma was trailing 28-7 before Williams supplanted Rattler and immediately made his presence felt with a 66-yard touchdown run, before going on to post 300 total yards and three touchdowns forever endearing himself to the school’s faithful. It appears that the Sooners have indeed found their man, for when they needed to be saved in Lawrence, he was there as well, rushing for a key 40-yard touchdown midway through the forth quarter to put some distance between the sides, while proving to be wise beyond his years on a crucial fourth down in which he wrestled the football out of the hands of a teammate who was being tackled short of the marker, and kept the drive alive. Lastly, in that aforementioned blowout of Texas Tech he posted career-highs in both passing yards (402) and touchdowns (6), further cementing his status as QB1 on Riley’s depth chart, at least for the time being. While both Quarterbacks have put forth some gaudy statistics, all you have to do is look at the performance of the Offense in comparison to which player started; prior to Williams’ emergence against the Longhorns, Rattler had led an attack that was performing well below standards in averaging 25.3 points per game on 371.0 total yards over the three previous contests, but since the Red River Rivalry have spiked considerably in churning out a much more prolific 46.3 points on 493.3 total yards, eclipsing fifty points twice in that span. And now we’re going to see what Williams and by extension Oklahoma are really made of as they finish the Regular Season with matchups against their chief competition in the Big XII: today at (No. 13) Baylor, at home against Iowa State, and on the road for Bedlam at (No. 10) Oklahoma State before likely seeing one of them for a rematch in the Conference Championship Game, with all three spending time in the Top-10 of the AP Poll at various points this year. If the Sooners run through that gauntlet and remain unscathed then they will certainly appear more appealing to the CFP Committee, but if they happen to fall to any of them then they’re going to be praying for chaos in the rankings over the next few weeks. This is also where we’re going to see how much the Defense has grown for if there is one thing that has separated this program from the elite schools that they’ve come across in the Playoff, it’s been their inability to get stops on this side of the football; Riley’s troops are winless in three National Semifinals in large part to giving up a ridiculous 54.0 points per game on 582.6 total yards in those contests, including an embarrassing SIXTY-THREE points and 693 total yards against LSU two years ago, both of which served as school records for a postseason opponent. Coming into this season the word out of Norman was that this would be the year in which the Defense was going to make a leap, with (Defensive Coordinator) Alex Grinch returning a number of starters from last year’s unit, including (Defensive Linemen) Perrion Winfrey (18 TKL, 6.5 TFL, 4.5 SK) and Isaiah Thomas (28 TKL, 8.0 TFL, 4.5 SK, 3 FF, 1 FR, 2 PD), along with (Edge-Rusher) Nik Bonitto (28 TKL, 9.0 TFL, 5.0 SK, 2 FR, 1 PD). Unfortunately, this group hasn’t taken a step forward at all, allowing 24.2 points per game (59th in FBS) on 383.9 total yards, which both represent a step BACK from 2020. While those three players have been great, this unit still remains rather unconvincing in the Secondary, where they experienced a lot of turnover, particularly at Cornerback with no returning starters. With that said, they’ll get an opportunity to put some respect on their names against Baylor, whom they’ve handled well under Riley, winning each of their five meetings under the 38-year old’s watch, the last three of which the Bears have been ranked no lower than eighteenth in the AP Poll.
Meanwhile, as their opponent is aiming for the Playoff, Baylor (7-2, 4-2 in Big XII) is simply looking to keep their hopes of appearing in a second Big XII Championship Game in three years alive, though today’s matchup is a considerable hurdle in their path. Like many programs that ushered in a new coaching staff prior to COVID-19 wrecking utter havoc across the college football landscape, the Bears were no different as they floundered following a trip to the conference title game with a miserable 2-7 finish in (Head Coach) Dave Aranda’s first season in Waco. Aranda, who was fresh off winning the National Championship as LSU’s Associate Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator, inherited a roster that lost a number of seniors to graduation and the NFL, leaving he and his staff to build upon what was left. Under normal circumstances that can be a difficult task, but during a national pandemic it was next to impossible; there was no Spring Practice to implement his philosophies or evaluate the roster, and with a three-week suspension of all football activities due to a breakout within the program after their second game it was like they had to completely start over yet again mid-season. The Offense was particularly problematic, with (Offensive Coordinator) Jeff Grimes struggling to put in place the “wide-zone” rushing attack that he utilized at BYU; Baylor averaged just 23.9 points per game on 310.2 total yards, both of which ranked next-to-last in the conference, along with a league-low 90.3 rushing yards. Simply put, you can’t survive in the Big XII if you can’t put up a plethora of points, and with that said there were serious questions coming into this season as four-year Starting Quarterback, Charlie Brewer, opted to leave the program and transfer to Utah. Fortunately, the Bears seem to have found a capable successor in the form of (Junior) Gerry Bohanon (65.0%, 1,972 YDS, 8.8 Y/A, 15 TD, 5 INT), who emerged from a wide-open competition that lingered well into the Summer. Bohanon has grown as a passer, completing an efficient 65.0% of his passes for 1,972 yards on a healthy 8.8 yards per attempt with fifteen touchdowns opposed to five interceptions, while bringing further value in the run game in rushing for 176 yards and another seven scores. The Offense as a whole has clearly taken to a full offseason working with Grimes & Co, scoring a much-improved 36.3 points per game (18th in FBS) on 458.4 total yards, including a robust 231.3 yards on the ground, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. Needless to say, this is a major turnaround for a unit that struggled to get much going past the line of scrimmage a year ago, for they were tackled for a loss on a wild 18.0% of their rushing attempts, easily the highest rate of any team in the nation. After featuring as a Linebacker over the first three years of his collegiate career, (Senior Tailback) Abram Smith (144 CAR, 1,055 YDS, 7.3 Y/A, 11 TD), made the switch to Offense and has thus broken out in 2021, rushing for 1,055 yards and eleven touchdowns, teaming with (electrifying return man) Trestan Ebner (101 CAR, 601 YDS, 6.0 Y/A, 1 TD) and the aforementioned Bohanon to give the Bears one of the most dynamic rushing attacks in the country. Ebner, who averaged a league-high 32.2 yards per kick return last season, has made an impact wherever Grimes has put him, rushing for 601 yards and a touchdown, hauling in ten receptions for eighty-four yards and another score, while racking up 22.9 yards per kick return and taking one to the house. With that said, this unit can move the football through the air too, with an experienced Receiving Corps led by seniors, R.J Sneed (35 REC, 500 YDS, 14.4 Y/R, 2 TD) and Tyquan Thornton (42 REC, 722 YDS, 17.2 Y/R, 7 TD), who together have combined for seventy-seven catches, 1,222 yards and nine touchdowns. On the opposite side of the football, Baylor has really taken off under Aranda’s watch, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise given his CV at LSU and Wisconsin. After all, this is a team that was really the only strong defensive side in the Big XII under the previous regime, and that identity has carried over to the coaching staff now that they’ve had a proper offseason to work together. The bears allowed a respectable 29.2 points (7th in Big XII) on 383.4 total yards (6th in Big XII) last season, and were particularly stout against the pass where they permitted just 203.0 yards, second-fewest in the conference. This year they’ve relinquished 20.6 points per game (27th in FBS) on 367.6 total yards, making the jump courtesy of a veteran-laden group that returns NINE starters from 2020. Linebackers are so crucial for any team running a 3-4 scheme, and this quartet is about as good as it gets, with (Senior) Terrel Bernard (53 TKL, 5.0 TFL, 3.0 SK, 2 PD) wrecking havoc after a shoulder injury ended his junior campaign prematurely. Bernard has been a heat-seeking missile in the middle of the park, while Jalen Pitre (50 TKL, 12.5 TFL, 2.0 SK, 3 FF, 3 FR, 2 INT, 5 PD) routinely frequents opposing backfields. Opponents have found it hard to run against their defensive front, mustering just 90.2 yards on a scant 2.9 yards per carry. With that said, it was their pass defense that utterly failed them in last weekend’s stunning 28-30 loss at TCU; in a game in which the Horned Frogs played their first game without (longtime Head Coach) Gary Patterson after parting ways with him earlier in the week, the Bears were SHREDDED through the air to the tune of 468 yards on 30-of-42 passing. The loss snapped a three-game winning streak for Aranda’s troops who had an opportunity late to win it after the hosts missed a field goal; driving past midfield late in the fourth quarter, Bohanon was intercepted for the second time of the afternoon, ending the affair with 1:03 left on the clock. It was also a significant setback in the race to get to the Big XII Championship Game, for with two losses in conference play and their only other loss to Oklahoma State, Baylor will need to topple the Sooners today and hope for some help over the last two weeks as they travel to Kansas State before ending the regular season against Texas Tech in Waco. As we stated earlier, Oklahoma has gotten the better of them in recent years, winning seven straight meetings including each of the last three at McLane Stadium. Last year’s affair ended in a 27-14 defeat in Norman, which saw the hosts race out to an early 17-0 advantage proving too much for the rebuilding Bears. With that said, Aranda can take solace in the fact that his Defense seriously stressed the Sooners throughout the game, limiting them to a season-lows in points (27), total yards (269), passing yards (193), rushing yards (59), and first downs (16).