Oklahoma football: Why the TCU game is OU’s fork in the road

When Oklahoma football returns to action on Saturday at TCU, it not only marks the first game in the second half of the season but also a fork in the road in terms of what direction the rest of the season is going to take for the Sooners.

After a disheartening loss to the hated Texas Longhorns, the Sooners have had two weeks to take a long, hard look at themselves and what corrections and changes they need to make as they embark on the important second half of the schedule.

Oklahoma is 5-1 and still very much in the thick of things insofar as Big 12 title and national championship aspirations. But they weren’t going to get there the way things had been going in the last three games. Everyone recognizes that OU is extremely good offensively, but in the last three games the Sooners’ soft side — namely a beaten-up and over-generous defense — has been highly exposed.

One good thing that came out of the Texas loss is that it came at a fortuitous time in the 2018 schedule. It allowed the Sooners more time than they would have had otherwise to take a good hard look at themselves in the mirror and make some tough but necessary course corrections.

By far the biggest adjustment has been the coaching change at defensive coordinator, where veteran college coach and Lincoln Riley confidant Ruffin McNeill has taken over for Mike Stoops, who had been under the gun for several years and many thought had a fractured relationship with a number of his players.

The one-week layoff also provided extra time for some Sooner players to get healthy, especially on the defensive side, which has been on the field for long stretches of time in recent games, something the OU defensive coaches have seriously worked to fix the last two weeks.

On Saturday, Oklahoma begins a rugged six-week stretch of games, during which the Sooners must travel to three of the most difficult places to play in the Big 12. The journey begins with a game at TCU this Saturday. A couple of weeks down the road, Texas Tech will not-so-hospitably welcome the Sooners, and on the Friday after Thanksgiving, on the final weekend of the regular season, OU must go to West Virginia, which could go a long way toward determining the matchup for the Big 12 Championship.

No question the second half of the season is a more difficult gauntlet for the Sooners than the first six games. That is a chilling thought, but just like going into the second half of a game, the adjustments you make at halftime are often the ones that determine the ultimate outcome of the game.

Saturday’s early kick against TCU (11 a.m. CT on ABC) will be both interesting and telling. Will Oklahoma come out with fire in its eyes and jump on the Horned Frogs early and often as it has in all five of its wins this season, or will the Sooners exhibit some rust after the two-week layoff?

How will the OU defense play under McNeill? Will the reworked defense be able to stop the run, put more pressure on the quarterback, tackle better and, most important, get off the field and hand the ball over to the high-octane Sooner offense?

TCU will have something to say about all of that, for sure, and after losing two of its last three conference games, don’t expect the Frogs to take the Sooners lightly. What you can expect is a fairly close game (five of the last seven games between these two teams has been decided by seven or fewer points.

Yogi Berra famously once said: “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” The task before head coach Lincoln Riley and Oklahoma is not quite that simple.

The Sooners are at the fork in the road in the 2018 season. The road they take from here will determine if they remain on course for a fourth consecutive Big 12 crown, let alone remain in contention for a national title.

On Saturday, we will begin to see where the rest of the road takes Oklahoma.