Oklahoma Football: Inside the Huddle at Sooner Playoff Preparations


It has been seven seasons since Oklahoma football last had the chance to play for the national championship.

It just so happens that the Orange Bowl was the venue that January night in 2001, when the Sooners put on a defensive display for the ages to take down one of the nation’s best offensive teams in Florida State.

Oklahoma’s opponent in one of two national semifinal games on New Year’s Eve as part of the 2015 College Football Playoff poses a very similar opportunity. The top-ranked Clemson Tigers feature a stellar offense, behind maestro Deshaun Watson at quarterback, and one of the nation’s best defenses to make it doubly tough for their opponent.

Nov 7, 2015; Norman, OK, USA; Iowa State Cyclones running back Mike Warren (2) is tackled by Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Jordan Evans (26) during the second quarter at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Sooners are equally strong on both sides of the ball. So what we have is a matchup of two very similar teams. It will be exciting to watch the chess match unfold between the respective offensive and defensive coordinators on both teams.

OU head coach Bob Stoops feels very good about his team’s practice sessions. He believes the Sooners are in the right frame of mind and are well versed on what Clemson is likely to throw at them.

Oklahoma has been practicing at Barry University, located about nine miles north of downtown Miami.

"“I would say that our intensity in practice has been really, really high,” said junior Sooner linebacker Jordan Evans in an article published on OU’s athletic website. “The guys are excited to be out here in Miami and for what we are playing for, first and foremost.“Everyone has been playing with a high intensity and a high motor, trying to get better to be ready for this game.”"

All Big-12 First Team wide receiver Sterling Shepard echoes his teammate’s comments. The intensity and focus with which the Sooners have gone about their work getting ready for Clemson is the same, he says, that helped Oklahoma finish out the regular season on a seven-game win streak in which the Sooners were utterly dominant.

Shepard’s mother for Christmas gave him his father’s national championship ring from the 1985 OU team that captured the school’s sixth national crown. On that historic occasion, the Sooners and Derrick Shepard beat another No. 1 team, Penn State, 25-10, in the 1986 Orange Bowl (although this was at the original Orange Bowl site and not Sun Life Stadium, where the game is played now).

Sterling is hoping to complement his dad’s ring with one of his own by helping his team win two more games this season.

Special teams is an aspect of the game that tends to get overlooked when analysts’ get down to the real nitty gritty and begin to look at matchups and the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams. With teams as evenly matched as Oklahoma and Clemson appear to be on the surface, it is often things like special teams that turn out to make the biggest difference.

In a tightly contested game, field position can be a game-changer. Not only in the return game (kickoff and punts), but just as important, in the coverage units. One of those obscure or hidden stats that don’t seem as important until they are important is that the Oklahoma punt coverage is among the very best in the country.

That starts with the punter, who is responsible for getting off a good, high kick that allow time for the punt team defenders to get down field and cover the punt. True freshman Austin Seibert is handling the punting and placekicking duties this season for the Sooners. His 42.5 average was second in the Big 12 in 2015 and ranked seventh in the country.

The Sooners have had only 10 punts returned all season (punts on which a fair catch was not called) for a grand total of seven yards. That return average of 0.7 yards per return is No. 1 in the country. Something to keep an eye on in the Orange Bowl game on Thursday.