Oklahoma Football: Defenses Must Do the Job to Advance in Playoff


When you summarize Oklahoma football in 2015, high-octane offense comes to mind first and foremost.

Offenses get all the hype when you talk about Clemson and Oklahoma football this season, but neither team would be where they are without a stellar defense.

There is little question that the Sooners and the Tigers, who will face off on Thursday in the first of the national semifinal games that consititute this season’s College Football Playoff, are loaded with talent and explosiveness on offense, but I am willing to bet you that the best offense won’t win on Thursday; rather, the team that plays the best defense will walk off with the victory and advance to play one more game.

Nov 28, 2015; Stillwater, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners cornerback Jordan Thomas (7) against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Boone Pickens Stadium. The Sooners defeated the Cowboys 58-23. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It is a well-worn cliché, but when you get to this stage of the season it is a time-honored truth: Great offenses win games, but great defenses win championships.

Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean that we won’t witness a high-powered offensive display on the part of both of these top-four teams. Oklahoma is not going to be held to just six points like last year against Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Likewise, I am fairly confident the Clemson offense, even with the Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson at the quarterback controls for the Tigers, will not put up 40 unanswered points and have its way with OU as was the case a year ago.

Going by pure statistical comparisons, Oklahoma appears to have the advantage offensively, and the sides flip when you look at defensive numbers, but the advantages are only slight and cancel each other out when looking at the big picture.

Both teams are averaging over 500 yards of total offense, with the Sooners gaining 32 more yards per game than Clemson. On defense, though, the Tigers are yielding 55 fewer yards of offense to their opponents (295.7) than Oklahoma (350.7).

This comparison, however, would be much more meaningful if Clemson played the same schedule. It can be argued that the quality of the top teams in the Big 12 is stronger than what exists in the Atlantic Coast Conference. This is certainly the case from an offensive standpoint. Four Big 12 schools rank in the top 10 this season in scoring offense, with Baylor, Texas Tech and Oklahoma (45.8) ranked one, two, three and Oklahoma State ninth.

In terms of strength of schedule, the Sooners’ schedule this season is rated the fifth most difficult, according to the Sagarin Ratings. Sagarin rates Clemson as having the 47th hardest schedule in college football in 2015.

Against the three Big 12 teams ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring in 2015, the Sooners average scoring margin was 25 points with an average score of 53-28. Clemson averages 38.5 points per game, which ranks 16th on a national scale.

Nov 28, 2015; Stillwater, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners safety Ahmad Thomas (13) makes a diving tackle of Oklahoma State Cowboys wide receiver Jhajuan Seales (81) at Boone Pickens Stadium. The Sooners defeated the Cowboys 58-23. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Moreover, Oklahoma scored 40 or more points in nine out of 12 games this fall, and 50 or more six times. Clemson scored more than 50 points twice during the season and 40 or more four times. The Tigers also gave up 30 or more points to three of their 13 opponents, including their last two games (a five-point win over South Carolina and a seven-point victory over North Carolina in the ACC championship game).

It bears repeating that when the Sooners score 30 or more points under Bob Stoops they are 148-9. When OU scores 40 or more points, which it did nine times this season, the Sooners are 96-1 under Stoops.

This causes me to wonder if the Clemson defense, as good as it ranks statistically, will be able to shutdown the multiple weapons Oklahoma can throw at you on offense. The answer to that question will rest with whoever wins the battle upfront in the trenches when both teams have the ball. The Sooners’ ability to establish their running game with Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, as well as their ability to protect quarterback Baker Mayfield on passing downs, all is predicated on the performance of an offensive line that has gotten progressively better throughout the season.

The general thinking is that Oklahoma will focus its defensive effort on stopping the Clemson running game, including limiting Deshaun Watson’s yardage gained with his legs. OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops compares Watson’s dual-threat ability to that of TCU’s Trevone Boykin. He is a big play threat every time he touches the ball, and he is very accurate when he has time to throw and locate his receiving targets. Which is why the Sooners must be able to apply quarterback pressure with Eric Striker and Co.  and disrupt Watson’s comfort and rhythm in the pocket.

High-scoring teams generally are less effective in postseason play, which is why, in my view, good defense trumps good offense more times than not when you get to this stage of the season. If you cannot get defensive stops, get off the field on third downs and, at the very least, keep your opponent out of the end zone when on defense in the red zone, you are putting yourself in great risk of losing the game. It can also be said that the best defense is often an offense that can move the chains, take time off the clock and keep the other team’s offense on the sidelines.

Creating turnovers is a defense’s best friend, and Oklahoma has been one of the country’s best in that category this season with a plus-10 turnover ratio, mostly gained through interceptions (19). The Sooners will probably need one of two of those in Thursday’s Playoff game to halt Clemson drives and turn the ball back to the productive OU offense.

Later this week, I will preview and offer my prediction on the Oklahoma-Clemson matchup, but I believe defense holds the key to which team will move on and which team’s season and national title hopes will come to an end on Thursday. The team that plays the best on that side of the ball will move on to play again, this time for all the marbles, on Jan. 11.