Big 12 Football: Oklahoma Must Finish Perfect for the Playoff

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Oklahoma has made two trips to the College Football Playoff, and each time, the Sooners were able to overcome an October loss in Big 12 Conference play. To have any chance of a third CFP appearance, OU faces a similar scenario.

Allowing a rivalry record 48 points to the Longhorns spelled the end of Mike Stoops’ tenure as Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator. With two weeks before the next game, second-year coach Lincoln Riley decided to dismiss Stoops and move Ruffin McNeil into the position.

The initial results of the change appeared promising. The Sooners started the second half of their season with a 52-27 victory at TCU. The Horned Frogs’ offense produced just 20 points and 275 yards in total offense.

Even if Oklahoma can close out the season 11-1 and then beat the Big 12 runner up in the conference championship game, that’s no guarantee it will be good enough to earn a CFP bid. No matter how impressive OU’s offense is with Kyler Murray destroying defenses, it will be the Sooners’ defense that will determine of the CFP committee deems them worthy. Until November, assessing that unit won’t be easy.

The numbers posted against TCU were impressive, but the Frogs started a gimpy quarterback and replaced him after four series. Plus, TCU is seventh in the Big 12 in total offense. Saturday, Oklahoma faces Kansas State, which is ninth in total offense.

The Sooners can prove themselves in November. They start the month on the road at Texas Tech (which leads the Big 12 in total offense) and finish on the road at West Virginia (fifth in total offense).

The challenge for defenses attempting to counter the Big 12’s no huddle spread attacks is aligning to limit the run and the pass and having the defenders capable of doing both. In his second tour in Norman, Stoops couldn’t solve that either/or problem.

Against the Frogs, OU deployed more of a 4-2-5 alignment and mixed in some 3-3-5 sets. The Sooners also went with their bigger defensive linemen and moved freshman Bookie Radley-Hiles, perhaps the team’s best defensive back, from safety to corner.

McNeill isn’t Dumbledore. He can’t wave a wand, say “Defensious Improvioso” and turn the Sooners into the 1985 Chicago Bears. What he can and has done is adopt the KISS philosophy – keep it simple, stupid.

When he was in charge of Texas Tech’s defense, the last-chance Friday night meetings with his group was about clarity. As he reviewed the defensive game plan, he asked the players if they understood the schemes and play calls. If any player was in doubt, that part of the plan was discarded.

“We talk this way: It’s not the call. They’re the call. Players are the call,” McNeill told The Athletic. Whatever we’re calling is just a base call and they’re the call. That’s putting ownership back on them and I think the kids appreciate that. You always have to have great schemes, especially in this league because people can exploit you. But for me ‘Clear mind, fast legs. Cloudy mind, slow legs.’”

More QB changes and drama

TCU sophomore Michael Collins will become the 13th different starter at quarterback in the Big 12 this season when he takes over for the injured Shawn Robinson when the Frogs play at Kansas Saturday. Only West Virginia, Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma State have started the same guy at QB. There’s no more uncertainty than at Kansas where it’s either a revolving door or musical chairs.

The Longhorns could add to that list of different starters Saturday against Oklahoma State.

In UT’s last game against Baylor, sophomore Sam Ehlinger suffered an injured right (throwing) shoulder in the first quarter. He was replaced by junior Shane Buechele – who was the team’s starter as a freshman – and gave Texas enough production for a 23-17 victory.

The Longhorns had an off week to allow Ehlinger’s sprained his AC joint to heal. Thursday was the decision day in terms of his ability to play. “If he’s healthy and he’s himself, then certainly he’ll start,” Texas coach Tom Herman said.

Two teams that have each started three different quarterbacks meet in Ames Saturday when Texas Tech visits Iowa State. The two starters – the Red Raiders’ Alan Bowman and the Cyclones’ Brock Purdy – are both freshmen.

“You have two young guys that are playing at an extremely high level, leading their respective teams and (two freshmen) that’s very rare to see that in Power 5 football,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said.

Short yardage

  • The last time Texas Tech visited Iowa State, the Cyclones routed the Red Raiders, 66-10. There have several defensive low points in Kliff Kingsbury’s time in Lubbock, but allowing that many points to a team not known for explosive offense. 
  • Oklahoma wide receiver Lee Morris, a former walk on who was Kyler Murray’s favorite receiver when they played at Allen (Texas) High School, has 11 career receptions. Seven of those catches have produced touchdowns. 
  • When sixth-ranked Texas visits Oklahoma State Saturday for a prime-time contest, the Cowboys will wear throw-back uniforms modeled after the 1988 team. The gesture is to honor Barry Sanders on the 30th anniversary of his unmatchable Heisman Trophy season. For those of you unfamiliar with what Sanders did that season, here’s his game-by-game rushing yardage.

Audibles

Running back Alex Barnes on Kansas State looking to Army for inspiration in Saturday’s game at Oklahoma:
“We are going to try and take a similar approach … Army came out and punched them in the mouth and played really physical against them.”

Oklahoma linebacker Curtis Bolton on the Sooners’ defensive philosophy:
“We’re not just gonna let people sit back there anymore. I thought in the beginning of the season, we kinda sat back and let quarterbacks get at us a little bit. Now, it’s balls to the wall. It’s a race to the quarterback now.”

Texas coach Tom Herman on his team’s No. 6 ranking in the Associated Press poll:
“It’s completely and utterly inconsequential where we’re ranked through seven games of a season.”

Texas plays at Oklahoma State Saturday and defensive end Charles Omenihu was asked if he believes in trap games:
“I don’t even know the meaning of that. In the Big 12, there’s no such thing. Everybody’s good. Everybody comes to play.”