Oklahoma Football: No. 4 Playoff Seed Gives Sooners Best Shot at Big Prize


Some Oklahoma Football fans will be upset that the Sooners fell to the fourth spot in the final College Football Playoff standings, but in reality it might be cause for celebration.

Although it always feels better from a pride standpoint to be ranked higher rather than lower, in this case the Sooners are in a better position to advance out of the first playoff round than in all probability would be the case if they had held on to the No. 3 seed and been paired up against No. 2 Alabama in one of the national semifinal games.

As the No. 4 seed, the Sooners are matched up against Clemson, the top-ranked team in the country and the only undefeated team among this season’s Playoff participants. On the surface, that might seem to be a bigger hurdle to get to the national championship game than playing the next team down in this year’s college football pecking order.

Only, the No. 2 team is Alabama, the team with the favorite to win this year’s Heisman Trophy in Derrick Henry and the best defense in the college game this season. Oh, and by the way, you can bet that the football brain trusts for the Crimson Tide would like nothing better than another postseason shot at the Sooners, who surprised the college football world a couple of years ago with a stunning upset of the two-time defending national champions.

Nov 28, 2015; Stillwater, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Dominique Alexander (1) celebrates after defeating the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Boone Pickens Stadium. The Sooners defeated the Cowboys 58-23. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

But at No. 3, Oklahoma would have played Alabama in the Cotton Bowl – not the actual building by that name, but Jerry’s World at AT&T Stadium – you say, which would have been a virtual home game for the Sooners with a large segment of OU’s fan base located right there, just three hours from the main Oklahoma campus in Norman. Yes, that would have been nice from a geographic standpoint for those of us in Big 12 country, but I hasten to remind you that the Crimson Tide have probably played more games in that building – and never lost there under Nick Saban, by the way – than the Sooners.

As good as Oklahoma’s offense has been playing over the last half of the 2015 season, I am of the school of thought that great defenses get the best of great offenses more often than the reverse. The Sooners are averaging 542 yards of offense per game this season, and that is just fourth best in the offensive-minded Big 12. Alabama is allowing opponents 258 yards of offense per game in 2015, second best in the country, and the Crimson Tide are the best in the nation this year in stopping the run, which is an important element in Oklahoma’s offense.

Alabama has given up less than 100 yards per game on the ground, and is almost as stingy in defending pass plays, yielding just 184 yards per game.

The Crimson Tide’s offense is not as explosive as the Sooners, but Alabama does have Derrick Henry, the leading rusher in the country this season and the prohibitive favorite to cart home the Heisman Trophy next weekend. Oklahoma had a hard time corralling Henry two years ago in the Sugar Bowl. Henry had 100 yards rushing in that game on just eight carries.

The best defensive team that Oklahoma faced all season was Tennessee. The Sooners won that game, 31-24 in double overtime and produced 358 yards of total offense, fairly equally distributed on the ground and through the air. The Volunteers ranked 46th in the nation this season in total defense. Both Alabama and Clemson rank in the top 10.

The reason I believe the Sooners match up better with Clemson is because the Tigers are not as good as Alabama in stopping the run, and Oklahoma must be able to establish its running game in order to slow down the pass rush and give Baker Mayfield time to spot open receivers. The better the Sooners are able to run the football the better they are able to spread the field and get Sterling Shepard and their cast of speedy receivers open in space. That is what makes the Oklahoma offense so dangerous.

Nov 14, 2015; Waco, TX, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Samaje Perine (32) runs away from Baylor Bears safety Orion Stewart (28) during the game at McLane Stadium. The Sooners defeat the Bears 44-34. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

While Oklahoma may be able to move the ball better against Clemson, it is also safe to say that the Tigers pose a more difficult challenge than Alabama on offense.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is also a Heisman candidate, and he poses a dual threat in the ability to run as well as pass the ball with high accuracy. Dual-threat quarterbacks like Watson have always given Oklahoma trouble, and they will definitely have to contend with that when they play the Tigers. For one thing, it limits OU’s pass rush ability with guys like Eric Striker and Charles Tapper because they have to respect Watson’s ability to tuck the ball and run.

When Oklahoma and Clemson met last December in the Russell Athletic Bowl, Oklahoma did not have a completely healthy Sterling Shepard and they did not have Mayfield, who perhaps has made the single biggest difference in the Sooners’ turnaround this season. OU also did not have Joe Mixon to complement Samaje Perine in the backfield.

The media has been quick to point out that the last time these two teams met, Clemson embarrassed the Sooners. Almost the exact same thing the OU players were hearing before they played Baylor on the road this season. We all know how that turned out (a 44-34 Oklahoma victory).

Oklahoma is a much better team than its was at this time a year ago, and I believe the Sooners’ coaching staff will use the outcome in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl as extra motivation in preparing the OU players for the New Year’s Eve rematch with Clemson.

That same motivation factor would work against the Sooners if their first-round Playoff opponent would have been Alabama.

Everyone remembers Ohio State’s incredible run to the championship last season. The Buckeyes jumped over the Big 12’s TCU and Baylor to make the inaugural College Football Playoff field as the No. 4 seed. The Buckeyes had an inexplicable season-opening loss to Virginia Tech a year ago, and then proceeded to run the table from there. Sounds like the Oklahoma story this season, doesn’t it?

After a still-hard-to-understand upset loss to Texas in the annual Red River game, the Sooners turned it into high gear. Over its final seven games of the regular season, OU outscored its opponents – including the three top contenders in the Big 12 – by an average score of 52-19 and produced no fewer than 500 total yards in any game.

And unlike last season’s stunning loss to Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale, the Sooners took care of business in an emphatic way, defeating the same Oklahoma State team, at their place this time, by 35 points, 58-23, in what amounted to a de facto Big 12 championship game.

This indeed is a very different year for Oklahoma football than the 2014 season, and we’re all hoping it will end in a much different way.

With another strong effort on offense and defense – and a little Sooner Magic, of course – on New Year’s Eve in the Orange Bowl, Oklahoma may get the chance to play Alabama again after all.