Oklahoma has made the College Football Playoff in two of the last three seasons — and the Sooners have a good shot to make it three out of four.
The 2018 season will be difficult with the departure of Orlando Brown on the offensive line, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo on defense and Baker Mayfield at quarterback.
But Oklahoma always seems to reload. The last two times Oklahoma started a season with a quarterback battle, it won a Sugar Bowl against Alabama (2013 season) and made a College Football Playoff appearance (2015).
So, how can the Sooners reach the playoff again in 2018? Here are five reasons Oklahoma could crack the top 4 again:
1. Lincoln Riley’s offense
Year 1 of Lincoln Riley, the head coach, went better than anyone could have imagined. The preseason “pretenders” of college football ran through their regular-season schedule with one loss. And the Sooners were arguably a few plays away from making the National Championship Game.
Oklahoma’s defense was horrific at times last season, but the genius of Riley’s play calling and offensive system allowed Oklahoma to do amazing things on the other side of the ball. Oklahoma consistently has produced talented offenses, but it feels like the Sooners could be consistently revered on offense under Riley the way Alabama is on defense.
2. Nonconference schedule
Oklahoma’s nonconference schedule isn’t the most challenging in the Big 12, but it has potential to be better in retrospect at the end of the season. Florida Atlantic, UCLA and Army visit Norman, Okla., in 2018. Oklahoma can easily win all three, but it won’t be shocking to see Florida Atlantic and UCLA challenge the Sooners.
Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin might not have as many weapons as Riley does, but his team has the potential to make a run at a New Year’s Six bowl as the Group of 5 representative. UCLA likely won’t be too great during Year 1 of the coach Chip Kelly era, but the name recognition on the schedule should suffice for Oklahoma’s playoff résumé. And Army actually won 10 games last season.
If each team the Sooners play in nonconference wins at least seven games — which I think is feasible — it’s a major win for the Sooners’ strength of schedule.
3. Competent defense
The #FireMikeStoops contingent might want to close its eyes.
Oklahoma’s defense will be much better in 2018. The Sooners won’t be Georgia- or Alabama-level good on defense, but the reviews from spring camp are positive and the Sooners have recruited much better on defense the last two seasons.
The Sooners secondary, in particular, might have one of its best years in recent memory with the addition of Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops catches a lot of heat for his unit’s shortcomings, but his secondary seems better poised to shut down Big 12 passing attacks. There is a lot of experience at linebacker, and the defensive line has a good mix of players ready to make the jump into leadership roles. A few blue-chip freshmen will push for playing time.
4. Skill players
No one should envy the task opposing defensive coordinators will have this season trying to game-plan for Rodney Anderson, Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb, because I’m honestly not sure you can.
If Anderson had played the entire 2017 season like he did in the Sooners’ last eight games, he might have been in contention for the Heisman Trophy. There was little Anderson couldn’t do, and he will make life much easier on either quarterback, Austin Kendall or Kyler Murray.
Speaking of helping the quarterbacks, Oklahoma’s receivers will be super fun in 2018. Lamb has the size, and Brown has the speed. Riley’s system will be a big reason Oklahoma can make the College Football Playoff again, but he has a few elite players to make it more viable. He also will have Mykel Jones, Trey Sermon and Grant Calcaterra. They could have bigger impacts this season.
The College Football Playoff’s small sample size has taught us Oklahoma has the selection committee’s respect. Oklahoma lost only one regular-season game in both 2015 and 2017. The two defeats at the time were considered awful. But Oklahoma turned around its season on each occasion and convinced the committee it was worthy of a playoff spot.
This type of forgiveness isn’t consistent across the board — Big 12 colleagues TCU and Baylor still are reeling from 2014 — but the message is clear. If it’s not too late in the season, Oklahoma can afford a slip-up.
Whether that seems fair is a debate for a different time, but the Sooners’ blue-blood status has its perks.