Oklahoma football: Sooners getting little Playoff respect

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 07: CeeDee Lamb #2 (with trophy) of the Oklahoma Sooners celebrates with teammate Nick Basquine #83 after defeating the Baylor Bears 30-23 in the Big 12 Football Championship at AT&T Stadium on December 7, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 07: CeeDee Lamb #2 (with trophy) of the Oklahoma Sooners celebrates with teammate Nick Basquine #83 after defeating the Baylor Bears 30-23 in the Big 12 Football Championship at AT&T Stadium on December 7, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images) /

Oklahoma football making its third consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff is the epitome of a good news, bad news story.

The good news is the Sooners are one of the select four teams that earned the opportunity to play for the 2019 national championship. The bad news is they are the odd man out in a Playoff whose other three teams are undefeated and clearly a cut above every other team in college football this season.

And as the No. 4 seed in this year Playoff seeding, Oklahoma is matched up with top-seed LSU in the semifinal round on Dec. 28, where the Sooners are a two-touchdown underdog, according to The Action Network and other Las Vegas handicappers.

The Sooners were considered longshots to even make this year’s Playoff, ranked all the way down at No. 10 four weeks before the final CFP rankings came out. Among the six teams that Oklahoma had to get past in order to move into one of the coveted four spots were two teams each from the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12.

And that, of course, assumed that the Sooners wouldn’t stumble themselves over the final few weeks of the regular season, including getting to and winning the Big 12 Championship.

We all by now know how that worked out, but the degree of difficulty doesn’t getting any less dubious, having to face the team that many believe to have the most impressive resume of any of the teams in this year’s Playoff field.

Despite again having one of the country’s most prolific offenses, Oklahoma averages the fewest points per game of the four Playoff teams (Ohio State, 48.7; LSU, 47.8; Clemson, 46.5; Oklahoma, 43.2).

With Jalen Hurts at quarterback, the Sooner offense isn’t as explosive as it was with Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, but is no less productive. Oklahoma is averaging 554 yards per game, second in the country behind LSU — compared with 571 per game in 2018 and 580 in 2017, both of which led the nation.

Oklahoma is leaning more toward running the football this season, utilizing Hurts’ running ability, instead of throwing the ball deep downfield as in seasons past. Having said that, though, Hurts is completing 72 percent of his pass attempts, along with 32 touchdowns, and the Sooners are averaging 303 yards per game through the air.

Oklahoma Sooners Football
Oklahoma Sooners Football /

Oklahoma Sooners Football

The No. 4-seeded Sooners are going to have their hands full slowing down, let alone stopping, the explosive LSU offense led by Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow. The LSU quarterback has a trio of uber-talented wide receivers headed by Ja’Marr Chase, who beat out OU’s CeeDee Lamb for this season’s Biletnikoff Award.

Despite a No. 24 national ranking in pass defense this season, Oklahoma is small and extremely thin in the secondary and has had trouble at times defending deep throws.

The Sooners finished the regular season with 12 wins, the third consecutive season that OU has recorded 12 wins under Lincoln Riley, who is 36-5 in his three years as head coach.

Although the Sooners’ average victory margin in those 12 wins was 18.7, three of their final four regular-season games were decided by a combined eight points, including overcoming a 25-point deficit to garner an improbable win over previously unbeaten Baylor. Were it not for an improved defense over the past couple of seasons, Oklahoma could easily have lost a couple of those November close calls.

Oklahoma has been to the College Football Playoff in four of the six seasons the format has been in existence, including this season, but has yet to make it past the semifinals. Only once (in 2017, when OU was the No. 2 seed, have the Sooners been higher than a four seed.

The Sooners clearly have the talent and the ability to beat any team in the country on any given day, and clearly if they play up to their capability and for a full 60 minutes. The problem is, they haven’t done so in any game this season. And in the close games they encountered at the end of the regular season, they had gotten out to big leads early in a couple of the contests, only to let their opponent get back in the game.

Although the odds are heavily stacked against Oklahoma making it out of the first round again this season, the matchup with LSU is actually better for the Sooners than having to go against either Ohio State or Clemson in the semifinals. The reason: The LSU defense, while better than most, is not as good as either of those other two teams.

Clemson and Ohio State rank one and two nationally in total defense and pass defense and one and three, respectively, in scoring defense. LSU’s statistics on the defensive side this season are not nearly as impressive: 32nd in total defense, 57th in pass defense and 27th in scoring defense, allowing 21 points per game.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the Sooners will fare any better against LSU than they would against either Clemson or Ohio State. What it does mean, however, is the SEC champions have more defensive vulnerabilities — on paper, at least — and that the chances of Oklahoma pulling off an upset appear to be more favorable against LSU than against the other two Playoff teams.

Here’s something else to boost the holiday hope of Sooner fans: A No. 1 seed has never won the national championship in the five-year history of the College Football Playoff. On the other hand, a No. 4 seed has come away with a national title two different times in the Playoff era (Ohio State in 2014 and Alabama in 2017).

Happy holidays and Boomer Sooner!