No. 8 Oklahoma
Oklahoma enters the first year of the Lincoln Riley era and the last year of the Baker Mayfield era. The pair have made magic in two seasons but continue to chase the national championship that has eluded the program for 16 years.
Mayfield is back for an offense that lost three studs but returns maybe the best offensive line in the country and an elite tight end. On defense, can a revamped line keep up with a stacked secondary and disruptive linebacker group?
2016 Record: 11-2 (9-0, Big 12)
Oklahoma's second-straight 11-win season was overshadowed by two September non-conference losses that proved to be too much baggage for the playoff committee.
The Sooners were beaten — soundly — by Houston in the opener and Ohio State — again, soundly — two weeks later. They did rattle off 10-straight wins, including against Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale to set the program record for conference wins in a season and clinch their first undefeated conference season since 2004.
Head Coach: Lincoln Riley (1st year)
It was widely believed that Sooners' offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley would succeed Bob Stoops as head coach. Maybe in 2020 or 2022. Not in 2017.
Stoops — 190-48 in 18 seasons as head coach — abruptly retired in early June in a move that shocked the college football. He was tied with Iowa's Kirk Ferentz as the longest-tenured head coach in the FBS. (Here's a fascinating story behind Stoops wanting the Iowa job in 1998.)
“To coach and his family — shoot,” Riley said at his introductory press conference as he held back tears. “He gave me a chance a few years ago that I’ll never forget. His guidance has been incredible, and to be the guy to take over for him is an incredible honor. So thank you.”
Riley, a 33-year-old first-time head coach whom Stoops plucked from East Carolina in 2015, is the youngest head coach in the FBS.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Baker Mayfield, RB Rodney Adams, RB Abdul Adams, FB Dimitri Flowers, WR Jeffery Mead, TE Mark Andrews, OT Orlando Brown, OT Bobby Evans
Riley might change a few behind-the-scenes things in Norman but very little — if anything — will change in terms of personnel, schemes or in-game decision-making. Quite, frankly there isn't much that needs changing.
The Sooners did score 23 and 24 points in the Houston and Ohio State losses, respectively, but didn't score fewer than 34 points the rest of the season.
They welcome back Heisman finalist Baker Mayfield at quarterback. The ultra-efficient and responsibly aggressive Mayfield is the best play-action quarterback in college football. He's not a record-breaking runner (772 yards in three collegiate seasons) but the threat is real; had over 2,000 play-action passing yards last year and a 144.1 passer rating on such plays.
Who is replacing three oft the Big 12's best players in Dede Westbrook, Joe Mixon and Semaje Perine? A mixture of little-used upperclassmen and unproven youngsters, including sophomore running back Rodney Anderson, a former four-star recruit who has many career carries as missed seasons due to injury (one). Despite the lack of experience, Anderson has earned high grades from the coaching staff this offseason.
"[Anderson is] our most seasoned guy and understands things a little better than some of our younger guys,” said running backs coach Jay Boulware said during the first week of fall camp. “I'm really pleased with where he's at right now. After our first day in pads, he's looked really good."
Senior receiver Jeffery Mead and junior Mark Andrews could be line for huge seasons. Andrews is a 6-foot-5, 254-pounder who's more like a receiver that happens to block very well. He's averaged 16.1 yards per catch in two years. Senior fullback Dimitri Flowers is also a stud.
The offensive line is loaded. With five returning starters — including junior left tackle Orlando Brown, a potential top-10 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft — they are one of the best units in the country.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Neville Gallimore, DT Matt Romar, LB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, LB Caleb Kelly, CB Jordan Thomas, CB Jordan Parker, S Steven Parker
Riley almost immediately hired his former ECU boss Ruffin McNeill to work alongside defensive coordinator Mike Stoops in making their defense more advantageous. They ranked 75th in sacks and 88th in turnovers gained.
“You have to be multiple defensively," McNeill said of a need for versatility. "Up front and on the back end. You have to show them different looks, different pressures. Make them think you’re far when you’re near and make them think you’re near when you’re far
After two injury-riddled seasons, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo was finally healthy in 2016 and wreaked havoc, registering nine sacks, third in the Big 12. The outside linebacker — a top candidate to lead the conference in sacks — will pair with Caleb Kelly and freshmen Jon-Michael Terry and Kenneth Murray to form a disruptive unit.
"I got a lot of other unfinished business here with my teammates,” he said when announcing his return to Oklahoma for his senior season. “I can't leave them behind. I got a lot of high expectations for myself, and I feel like I didn't meet those this year."
The entire starting line is gone, leaving senior Matt Romar and sophomore Nevill Gallimore as their leaders. Though Gallimore had only one tackle for loss and zero sacks in his final 10 games (three tackles for loss and one sack in Week 2 vs. Louisiana-Monroe), he and McNeill have said the game is slowing down for him. Romar, meanwhile, assumes a bigger role after posting 50 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks the last three seasons.
“Matt has done a great job being a leader and helping the young guys,” McNeill said. “He is a special player. He’s got great pad leverage, he’s got quick hands, great feet and great explosion at the point of contact.”
The secondary will be strong — to very strong. Corner Jordan Thomas is a big-bodied All-Big 12 player who had 17 passes defended last year. He still can get better, says Mike Stoops.
“It’s just becoming a more consistent player,” Stoops said. “That’s why he’s still here. He just gave up too many deep balls a year ago. He needs to continue to work on his fundamentals. As he gets stronger in the weight room he can be a more physical player."
Notable Player Losses
RB Joe Mixon, RB Semaje Perine, WR Dede Westbrook, DT Jordan Wade, LB Jordan Evans
Three of Oklahoma's four draftees were offensive players, led by All-American receiver and return man Dede Westbrook and stat-stuffing running backs Joe Mixon and Semaje Perine (combined for 5,543 total yards and 46 touchdowns the last two years).
Defensively, all-conference players Jordan Wade and Jordan Evans are also gone. Evans led the team in tackles and interceptions and ranked second in both tackles for loss and sacks.
Notable Player Additions
LB Jon-Michael Terry, LB Kenneth Murray
Two former three-star recruits are competing for a starting job at linebacker. Jon-Michael Terry, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound redshirt freshman was expected to replace Jordan Evans in the middle but has missed a lot of time during fall camp. That's opened the door for true freshman Kenneth Murray a chance.
“The kid, he’s ready to go right now,” Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said of Murray at Big 12 Media Days. “It took him like a week or two, then he started looking like one of us.”
The entire college football world will be fixated on Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 9 for Oklahoma-Ohio State, the biggest Big 12 non-conference game of the season. As was the case last year, the loser will have zero margin for error in their playoff quest.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. UTEP|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||at Ohio State|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Tulane|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||at Baylor|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||vs. Iowa State|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. Texas|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||at Kansas State|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||vs. Texas Tech|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||at Oklahoma State|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. TCU|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||at Kansas|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||vs. West Virginia|