Oklahoma football: Sooners have ground to make up, but aren’t out of the race yet

A three-point loss to a rival isn’t exactly a season-ender, but giving up 45 points to a middle-of-the-road offense and firing a defensive coordinator midseason certainly gives Oklahoma an air of desperation.

Despite the whole city of Norman pushing the panic button at the same time over the past 72 hours, the Sooners are still in position to make a run at not just a Big 12 Championship, but the College Football Playoff.

ESPN currently puts Oklahoma as the seventh-most-likely team to make the College Football Playoffs and the favorite among Big 12 teams to do so at 12 percent. They are ahead of both undefeated West Virginia (10th at seven percent) and Texas (13th at one percent).

Ranked No. 11, this year’s team is one spot higher than they were in 2017 and eight spots better than they were in 2015 at this same point.

There are also going to be chances ahead of the Sooners to improve their standing among other highly-ranked teams with West Virginia and a possible rematch with Texas still ahead on the schedule.

This path has been walked before in Norman, and recently, but how does the 2018 team repeat its predecessors?

Leadership has to emerge

Situations like this either make or break a team. The Sooners are young, but there are a ton of players with big-time experience in the OU locker room. Now is the time for those players to take ownership of this team and lead the way.

Simplify on defense

Coaching changes in the middle of the season don’t magically fix the ills of a team, but sometimes  a new voice can create a different energy.

Ruffin McNeil isn’t Mark Richt of Georgia or even Todd Orlando, but he does know football and football players. His job will be to get his players lined up correctly, improve tackling and boost morale for a group that has seen its pride hurt the past few days.

If the Sooners can play more fundamentally sound on that side of the ball and eliminate pre and post-snap confusion, there’s no reason this team can’t get seven to 10 points better on defense, which might be just enough to allow this historically-good offense to succeed.

A tale of two halves

One of the best qualities of the past three OU football teams was their ability to improve down the stretch. Oklahoma has always seemed to gel in both scheme and personnel, improving week by week and building to a crescendo.

This is good news for an Oklahoma team that has a back-loaded schedule with West Virginia and a potential Big 12 Championship game in the final two weeks of the year.

However, those past teams had the benefit of cohesion among the coaching staff. How much does this last week’s events disturb that process?

A little luck

Unfortunately for the Sooners, not everything is in their control. There are six teams ahead of Oklahoma with better chances of reaching the College Football Playoff and one team tied with them (Washington). Five of those squads (Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Georgia) are undefeated. Penn State and Washington both have one loss.

The SEC will put at least one team in, as will the Big 10. One would have to think that should Notre Dame finish undefeated – or possibly even with one loss – they would get a spot. Clemson would probably get in over the Sooners undefeated or maybe even with one loss.

The Sooners need help ahead of them in the standings. OU fans need to start paying attention to Clemson and Notre Dame football games when Oklahoma isn’t playing,

There’s still hope in that situation though. Since the start of the College Football Playoff in 2014, only three Power 5 teams have made it through the regular season with an unblemished record, an average of less than one per year. The odds that multiple teams do it in the same year seem pretty far off.