Somehow, someway, we’re now just hours away from the first full Saturday of the college football season! And after spending the last few months breaking down every angle in the sport, it’s now finally time to talk about the most important aspect of the entire season: The true, national championship contenders. Go ahead and step aside, Purdue. Deuces, Iowa State. See ya later Clemso ---, oh wait, Dabo Swinney’s club is actually really good.
Over the next few days, FoxSports.com will break down all the true contenders for the National Championship and give you a couple of reasons why they can win it all. Last week we kicked things off with Ohio State Monday, hit the Washington Huskies on Tuesday discussed the Houston Cougars Wednesday, the Tennessee Vols Thursday and the TCU Horned Frogs Friday. This week, we’ve already hit both Clemson, LSU and Florida State. And now it’s time to head South --- or at least to the Southwest, where Bob Stoops again has a team primed to compete for a title. A year after making the College Football Playoff, here’s why Stoops’ club can go one step further and win it all.
Getty ImagesJackson Laizure
They’ve got Baker Mayfield and you don’t
I’ve already said this several times this off-season, but it’s worth repeating again: If I had a Heisman vote last year, it would have gone to Mayfield. Not just because of the numbers he put up but because of the impact he had on his team.
Yes, those numbers were incredible; whenever you throw 36 touchdowns, with 3,700 yards through the air, and average almost a first down per completion that’s incredible. But with Mayfield, it was about so much more. It was about him taking this program, coming off a disappointing 8-5 season back in 2014 and throwing them on his back. It was about the Sooners falling down by 13 points in the fourth quarter at Tennessee in Week 2 and whenever we said “Here we go again with Oklahoma,” Mayfield instead threw the team on his back and said “I got this.” It resulted in a wild, double-overtime comeback, and one that the team never really looked back from all year.
More importantly, maybe my favorite stat on Mayfield was this: After the Sooners lost to Texas in the Red River Rivalry game, he went on a tear where he threw 21 touchdowns and just two interceptions, leading the Sooners to another Big 12 title. In Oklahoma’s biggest games, where his team needed him most, Mayfield was at his best.
And he might be the biggest reason the Sooners can win another Big 12 title.
Then again, it doesn’t hurt that…
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They have one of the best running back tandems in college football
If we’re being totally transparent here, I already made the case that Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara are the best one-two running back punch in college football. But if they’re No. 1, then Semaje Perine and Joe Mixon are 1B.
The simple truth is that if Mixon had never arrived on the scene, Perine would be discussed in the same breath as guys like Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey, and every bit the Heisman Trophy candidate. Of course the only reason he isn’t, is because last year Mixon arrived to alleviate some of his workload. After Perine rushed for over 1,700 yards as a true freshman in 2014, he only rushed for 1,300 yards last season, with Mixon chipping in another 753 yards.
But what is a loss for Perine’s stat sheet is Oklahoma’s gain, as it now gives Oklahoma one of the most feared and dynamic rushing attacks in the sport. With these two back and three starters returning along the offensive line, there’s no reason to think that the Sooners can’t be just as dynamic this year.
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Their schedule should give them the benefit of the doubt with the playoff selection committee
Since the college football playoff came into existence a few short years ago, one criteria to determine playoff participants which has been discussed at naseum is strength of schedule. What the committee has made clear is this: If you challenge yourself out of conference with your schedule (and meet all the other necessary criteria) you will have a leg up on the rest of the field. If you don’t challenge yourself, it could be held against you (see Baylor in 2014). Well, three years later, it’s safe to say no one has taken that message to heart quite like the Sooners.
Now granted, we all know that schedules are made years in advance, but the one thing Bob Stoops has never been afraid to do is challenge his team out of conference. We saw that the last two years with the Tennessee series and we see it again this year, as the Sooners start a home-and-home with Ohio State in Norman. They also just so happen to play Houston (in Houston) in a season where the Cougars could have their best team in 25 years.
But while the schedule looks daunting on paper (and probably will be in reality), it could actually help the Sooners in the long run. Obviously it’s impossible to expect Oklahoma to go undefeated (especially with a daunting Big 12 slate), but you have to imagine that they’ll get the nod over just about everyone with a similar one-loss resume. It also seems feasible that if more than one Power 5 champ has two losses, they would have the edge as well.
Point being, as daunting as the schedule is early on, it could pay dividends late. The question though is whether it will matter since…
Getty ImagesJackson Laizure
Doesn’t it feel like the Big 12 is a little down this year?
That’s not to say that things in the conference will be easy. They never are when you’ve got to play a true, round-robin nine-game schedule and can’t hide from anyone like they do in the Big 12. At the same, at least by the standards of the last few years, doesn’t it feel like the Sooners road to a conference title is at least manageable?
It seems so, when you consider a couple things. One, while I’m not as worried about TCU’s offense as some, the simple truth is that they are breaking in a ton of new personnel on offense. Kenny “Trill” Hill had moments, but there’s no guarantee he transitions to Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie’s offense as quickly as Trevone Boykin did two years ago. Baylor might have more talent than any team in the conference, but who knows if, or when their season will come unraveled. Oklahoma State returns a bunch of talent, but they have to play Oklahoma in Norman. And if last year’s game was any indication (a 53-28 OU win), the talent gap between the two schools is still manageable.
Speaking of which, the Sooners play two of their toughest games (Oklahoma State and Baylor) at home, and face the Horned Frogs off a bye. Not only is the conference down, but everything seems to have broken in Oklahoma’s favor this year.
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Bob Stoops remains one of the most underrated coaches in the game
Look, I know it’s easy to pick on Stoops, and tease Oklahoma fans about the “Big Game Bob Stoops” moniker. Believe me, I’ve done it. We’ve all been there.
At the same time, to get a nickname like “Big Game Bob” you have to, you know, actually play in big games. And that’s something that’s gotten a bit lost in the Stoops’ narrative through the years: He is still a helluva coach.
Just looking at the raw numbers, they’re incredible; in 17 seasons at the school he is averaging 10.5 wins per season, and he has either won the Big 12 outright or split the conference title 10 times in that stretch. His team played in four BCS national championship games during that era, and made the college football playoff within its first two years of existence. Oh, and over the last 16 years (dating back to his second season on campus) his team has never won less than eight games in a season. Those are numbers that virtually any college football coach would take, yet somehow with Stoops it seems like it isn’t enough.
While I understand that the sport is ultimately judged by titles and Stoops hasn’t won one in 16 years, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s one of the best and still underrated coaches in the game.
Doubt Stoops if you want, but he has a team built to win a title this season. And don’t be surprised if he gets there.