Oklahoma football heads into the 2018 season with big expectations after a terrific start to the Lincoln Riley era.
The Sooners fell to Georgia in the Rose Bowl, but the program looks primed for more runs to the College Football Playoffs under Riley.
Oklahoma will likely contend for the Big 12 crown again. Getting back to the College Football Playoffs will be tougher than before, however, with the departure of Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield.
Oklahoma has a favorable schedule with seven home games, which includes all of its nonconference opponents. The tricky part will be road games at TCU and West Virginia.
Which games mean the most to Oklahoma’s playoff chances next season? Here are the Sooners’ top 5 must-win matchups in 2018:
5. at Iowa State, Sept. 15
This might’ve sounded insane a year ago, but Iowa State is a program on the rise.
The Cyclones introduced themselves to the college football world with a colossal win over the Sooners in 2017. So, Oklahoma should be searching for revenge.
Why it’s important: Road wins are always key to a solid College Football Playoff résumé. It’s uncertain if coach Matt Campbell’s group can duplicate its success from last season. But Oklahoma needs to show some heart in a game that many will be tuned in to see how Riley’s squad responds to last year’s loss.
4. UCLA, Sept. 8
Oklahoma typically schedules tough nonconference games. The Sooners probably weren’t expecting Chip Kelly to be on the visiting sideline, however, when they agreed to this home-and-home series.
Year 1 of Kelly might not be great. It’s the 2019 matchup in Los Angeles that should concern Oklahoma fans.
Why it’s important: This is the marquee nonconference win Oklahoma needs. The Pac-12 might not be the Big Ten or SEC, but Oklahoma has to have this win on its résumé. When November rolls around, Oklahoma will be thankful for accidentally falling into a game with Kelly, as well as Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic. It’s almost like a redo for the hand the Sooners were dealt in 2016 with Ohio State and Houston turning out the way they did.
3. at TCU, Oct. 20
TCU has one win over Oklahoma, and it came in the last game before Mayfield was the Sooners’ starting quarterback.
The Horned Frogs will be hungry for this one after losing twice to the Sooners last season.
Why it’s important: You have to win your games coming off bye weeks, and this game has the potential to be one the College Football Playoff selection committee remembers close to its first poll. The first playoff rankings of the year aren’t super important, but the earlier Oklahoma is on the playoff committee’s radar, the better. This one could also wash away any bad tastes if the Sooners trip up against UCLA, Iowa State or Texas.
2. Texas, Oct. 6 (Dallas)
Is Texas truly back? That remains to be seen. But coach Tom Herman is doing wonders for the Longhorns as far as recruiting goes.
Texas hasn’t won the Red River Showdown since 2015. This seems like an opportune time for Herman to get his first win over Riley.
Why it’s important: The Red River Showdown is always important. No matter the year. No matter the records, Oklahoma-Texas is always appointment television. Set in one of the best atmospheres college football can offer, Oklahoma has to beat its rivals. And it would help Oklahoma’s cause if Texas actually was back.
1. at West Virginia, Nov. 23
If Oklahoma and West Virginia are as good as people think, they might see each other a second time in the Big 12 title game after their meeting on Black Friday.
Why it’s important: It’s the last weekend of the regular season, and Oklahoma has a chance at facing a top-10 team on the road. That is a College Football Playoff contender’s dream. Getting this win will go a long way if West Virginia is a playoff contender itself. But something just as important, Oklahoma gets to play on a Friday and doesn’t have to fight for eyeballs on its game. The Sooners will be the main attraction, and can send a message to the playoff committee.