Oklahoma football: Sooners will be better, nastier than ever

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 01: Neville Gallimore #90 of the Oklahoma Sooners celebrates with the Big 12 Championship trophy after a 39-27 win against the Texas Longhorns at AT&T Stadium on December 01, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 01: Neville Gallimore #90 of the Oklahoma Sooners celebrates with the Big 12 Championship trophy after a 39-27 win against the Texas Longhorns at AT&T Stadium on December 01, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

The anticipation is building. We’re just days away from the start of Oklahoma football preseason training camp and under 50 days from the official kickoff of the 2019 college football season.

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For months now we’ve been reading and hearing all the questions surrounding the 2019 edition of Sooner football, but also projections that Oklahoma could be even better this fall than it’s been the past couple of seasons.

That’s a truly scary proposition for teams on the Sooners’ 2019 schedule.

It’s almost paradoxical to think that a team with a new starting quarterback — its third starter in as many years — and having to replace four starters on the offensive line along with the country’s eighth-best pass receiver can be better than it was the first two seasons under head coach Lincoln Riley.

To put that into perspective, we talking about an Oklahoma team that won 12 games and led the nation in total offense in each of the past two seasons. And that’s just for starters. The Sooners also won consecutive Big 12 championships, produced back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners and have been to two consecutive College Football Playoffs.

And some experts want us to believe that Oklahoma can be better than that in 2019? If that is to be, the Crimson and Cream would have to win the national championship, right? I hate to disappoint you, but that isn’t necessarily the case.

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Winning a national championship is the perfect end to any season, but, as we all know as fans, only one team gets to enjoy a perfect ending to the season. And to muddy the waters even more, it’s not always the best team that wins the championship, but rather the best team that particular game. We also know that a lot of things have to go right — with some luck mixed in with the good — before you get the don the championship T’s and caps.

A lot of things have clearly gone right for the Sooners in recent seasons, and, yes, they can actually get better. But that still might not be enough to accomplish their ultimate goal of winning a national championship.

At Big 12 Media Days earlier this week, Riley said he did not expect much, if any, dropoff in offensive production in the coming season.

Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts may not be as gifted a quarterback as Kyler Murray, but there is no question he’s an experienced quarterback who has played in some awfully big college games, including three consecutive national championship games. That experience and leadership, along with an abundance of talent at the skill positions, is what Riley and the Sooners are counting on to keep one of the country’s most prolific offenses humming along on all cylinders.

As for the changeover on the offensive line, what might seem at the surface to be a rebuild would be better characterized as a reload. Since offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh arrived in Norman in 2013, the Sooners have recruited well at the O-line positions and have been able to develop depth at the position. Five players are competing for the four open starting positions along side returning sophomore center Creed Humphrey. Four are former blue-chip prospects, and the fifth is a grad transfer who played at Virginia the past two seasons.

"“All of the guys (offensive line replacements) are extremely motivated and are hardworking individuals,” said Humphrey in interviews at Big 12 Media Days. “We’ve been watching a ton of film together and doing a lot of drills together. Our chemistry will be fine right out of the gate.”"

The biggest question concerning how good Oklahoma might be a year removed from Kyler Murray and Co. is what the Sooners can do to reverse the detrimental direction of the defense. While the Oklahoma offense has been as good as they come in college football the past few years, the defense has been laboring near the bottom, at the opposite end of the 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

It’s actually pretty remarkable how successful the Sooners were last season, given how deplorable they played defensively. Everyone knows this is not a sustainable direction for continued success.

Alex Grinch was brought in in the offseason from Ohio State as the new defensive coordinator, and he has wasted little time in installing a new mindset and different style of play that should bring about needed improvement in the Oklahoma defense. The terms we hear coming out of the Sooner defensive players since Grinch’s arrival in describing their new defensive style and scheme are “fast-paced,” “effort-based,” “aggressiveness,” “physicality,” “speed” and “accountability.”

Sooner fans should not expect transformation improvements in the Oklahoma defense this coming season, but the incremental improvements we will see should definitely have a positive impact. One area to keep a close eye on is in the turnover department. Grinch wants the OU defense to play more aggressively and create more takeaways.

Generating takeaways not only results in a change of possession but creates additional scoring and ball-control opportunities for one of the best offenses in college football.

In retrospect, had the Oklahoma defense been just average the past couple of years instead of one of the nation’s 20 worst, it very well could have been the Sooners playing in the last two national championship games.

Oklahoma is likely to be ranked no higher than No. 6 in the 2019 Preseason Associated Press and Coaches Polls, which will be out in the next several weeks. That leaves the Sooners lurking on the outside looking in to start with, as far as the College Football Playoff picture is concerned, but well within striking distance if they can avoid stumbling.

The college football season is only 12 games long for most teams, but it can be highly unpredictable, despite what the experts want us to believe with all their offseason projections and opinions.

Next. Improve takeaways, you improve the defense. dark

If you believe in the notion that you either getting better or you’re getting worse, Oklahoma can and probably will be a better team — in some areas, at least — in 2019. In the next few months, we will know if that improvement is enough to bring a different outcome at season’s end.