No. 3 Oklahoma rolls into expected mismatch at Baylor (Sep 23, 2017)
WACO, Texas -- It's hard to imagine a game between two more divergent programs than the one between Baylor and Oklahoma on Saturday evening at the Bears' McLane Stadium.
On the visiting sideline, there's the No. 3-ranked Oklahoma Sooners, winners of their first three by an average margin of 35 points. Included in that is a game in which Oklahoma went to Ohio State and handed the then-No. 2 Buckeyes a 31-16 defeat.
Oklahoma has an experienced and proven quarterback in Baker Mayfield, who has plenty of quality offensive weapons at his disposal.
On the home sideline, things have developed much differently for Baylor.
After wandering through the wilderness in 2016 while the school sorted out its sexual assault scandal, Baylor has a new coach in Matt Rhule this season. And Rhule has a new set of problems as leader of the Bears.
In two years, Baylor has gone from a Big 12 championship contender with cultural problems within the program to a thin team struggling to find its footing in an 0-3 start.
The alarms sounded when FCS opponent Liberty handed the Bears a 48-45 defeat in the season opener. Then came a home loss to Texas-San Antonio.
One small similarity is that Oklahoma also has a first-year coach in former Sooners offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. He did a good job of talking up Baylor during the Big 12 teleconference on Monday.
"I know they've had certainly some tough things that they've been through," Riley said. "I think that's clear for everybody to see. I know the quality of coach that Matt Rhule is. That's been a good program and they've still got a lot of good players. We've got a lot of respect for them."
During the Art Briles era at Baylor, the Bears notched their first three wins against Oklahoma in program history. Baylor defeated the Sooners in 2011, 2013 and 2014.
The last time Oklahoma visited Baylor, Riley was Bob Stoops' offensive coordinator. The Bears entered the 2015 game with a No. 6 national ranking, an 8-0 record and College Football Playoff hopes. But No. 12 Oklahoma left with a 44-34 victory on its way to the CFP.
"It came right down to the end and it was certainly a big win for our program," Riley said. "I'm not saying it was the win that kind of got this latest run started here, but it was certainly one of the more important games we've played here over the last couple of years."
This game lacks a huge portion of the hype and intrigue that was present just two years ago. But it's still both teams' Big 12 opener.
"I know our kids are competitive. They want to play against good teams," Rhule said. "We've got to continue to try to get them to get better. That's all we can do."
For Baylor, just raising its third-down conversion rate above 20 percent against Oklahoma would be a significant mark. Last week, the Bears moved the chains on third down just once in 12 chances in a loss at Duke as quarterback Zach Smith took over as the starter from Arizona graduate transfer Anu Solomon.
Smith did hit touchdown throws of 73, 79 and 44 yards, but those plays weren't enough.
"Unfortunately, we're in third-and-long way too much," Rhule said.
"We haven't really made a contested catch yet. We haven't jumped up over top of someone and caught the football. We haven't made a catch where we got hit and come down with the ball. I think the third thing is too much pressure. That's more so when you're in (third-and-long) because we're not really running the football the way we need to."
Meanwhile, Oklahoma has the luxury of simply tinkering with its running back lineup. No Sooner running back has more than 31 rushes on the season. Abdul Adams has the most yards with 166 on 21 totes, while Trey Sermon has rushed 31 times for 135 yards. Two other more backs, Marcelias Sutton and Rodney Anderson, have figured in the running game.
"We're still learning more about those guys," Riley said.
"They're all performing well. They've all got some roles on special teams and they've all done a nice job for us there. I think it will depend on our health. I don't know that we've got a preconceived notion of we have to whittle it down or we want to keep playing all four. We appreciate the fact that we've got four that we think can play."