Baker Mayfield started out as the quintessential college football story. After receiving no offers from Power 5 programs out of high school, Mayfield walked on at Texas Tech and won Big 12 Freshman of the Year.
Two years and a transfer later, Mayfield grabbed the reins at blue-blood Oklahoma and took college football by storm. His season was so good, he finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting. The next year he was a finalist and moved up to No. 3.
Now, the underdog walk-on has survived in the Big 12 long enough to become a villain. His story has come full circle. Mayfield has experienced the highest highs that the conference has to offer, winning the conference title both years as a starter and earning a playoff berth. He even set the conference passing efficiency record.
At this point, he has nothing left to prove. As a Heisman finalist, he already deserves mention among the best quarterbacks in conference history. However, his greatest test is yet to come.
Building a reputation
When Mayfield walked on campus, Oklahoma was in turmoil. The Sooners went just 8-5, tied with 2009 and 2005 for worst season by a Bob Stoops team since his first year. OU fired longtime assistant and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel after the disaster.
One year later, the Sooners were in the College Football Playoff. Two significant things changed: Lincoln Riley took over as offensive coordinator and Mayfield became eligible after transferring from Texas Tech.
Mayfield played well during his freshman season in Lubbock, but failed to earn the full-time starting job – or a scholarship. Kliff Kingsbury eventually picked Davis Webb instead as his quarterback of the future.
What a mistake that was.
Mayfield has more than 8,000 yards in total offense and 89 touchdowns in two seasons as a starter. The Sooners won a pair of Big 12 titles. After losing five games in 2014, the Sooners lost just four in two years with Mayfield under center.
Now, Mayfield ranks as the best player in the Big 12 – and maybe the nation.
While Mayfield was by far the catalyst for the Sooners’ success in 2015 and 2016, he will be exposed like never before in 2017.
Star running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine are gone to the NFL. Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver Dede Westbrook was drafted too. Legendary coach Stoops also unexpectedly retired this offseason, leaving Lincoln Riley as the youngest coach in the FBS.
Abdul Adams (283 yards) is the Sooners’ leading returning rusher. Tight end Mark Andrews (489 yards) is the leading receiver. If Oklahoma is going to win a Big 12 title in 2017, Mayfield has to be why.
Granted, that’s not to say Mayfield doesn’t have any help. Oklahoma still recruits at an elite level, especially at running back. The offensive line should be one of the best in Big 12 history. OU also added Kentucky star WR Jeff Badet as a grad transfer, who should lead the team in receiving yards right away.
But with a young head coach and an inexperienced group of skill position talent, Mayfield has to be the difference. With a fearsome opponent across the state, the pressure only rises.
Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph ranked among the nation’s top passers last season. With Westbrook gone, James Washington might be the nation’s best wide receiver.
Mayfield shockingly managed to improve on a sensational sophomore campaign in 2016, even though the numbers were already insane. He completed more than 70 percent of his passes and set the Big 12 record for passer rating.
With less options, less experienced coaches and more pressure, Mayfield has to be even better in 2017.
There will be no reprieve. Oklahoma travels to Ohio State during Week 2. Let’s see if he’s up for the challenge.