Oklahoma football: Burden is on Sooner defense to defy Playoff odds

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ARLINGTON, TX – DECEMBER 07: CeeDee Lamb #2 of the Oklahoma Sooners stays in bounds after catching a pass as Baylor Bears defenders Chris Miller #3 and Henry Black #8 pursue in the first quarter of the Big 12 Football Championship at AT&T Stadium on December 7, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

As far as College Football Playoff appearances go — now four in total — the Oklahoma football offense appears as potent as ever. What’s different is the Sooners defensive performance, which is significantly better.

The Sooner defense will get its biggest 2019 test yet when it goes toe to toe with the nation’s top-ranked LSU Tigers in the semifinals of this year’s College Football Playoff on Saturday in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta is the venue, a facility that has represented the best and the worst of times for Oklahoma quarterback and Heisman runner-up Jalen Hurts.

Hurts started the 2018 national championship game for Alabama against Georgia. Trailing 13-0 at the half, Hurts was replaced by true freshman Tua Tagovailoa to start the second half. Tua led the  Crimson Tide to a dramatic 26-23 comeback win in overtime. Hurts never regained his starting role after that.

A year ago, in that same stadium, Hurts replaced an injured Tagovailoa with 11:15 to go in the fourth quarter and Alabama trailing Georgia 28-21 in the SEC Championship game. Hurts led a 69-yard scoring drive to tie the game, and followed that up with a 52-yard drive, capped off by a 15-yard touchdown run to secure the Alabama win and send them to the College Football Playoff, where they would meet Kyler Murray and Oklahoma.

On Saturday, Hurts will take the field at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium for third time, hoping to walk off a winner as in the previous two trips. The Oklahoma quarterback will become the first QB to start a College Football Playoff game for two different teams. He started two Playoff games for Alabama in both the 2016 and 2017 seasons and played in the Crimson Tide’s two CFP games last season as a backup.

The Dec. 28 game between Oklahoma and LSU will be an unprecedented seventh CFP game for Hurts.

This will be just the third time OU and LSU have played each other in football. The two schools split the previous two games, both in the Sugar Bowl: Oklahoma winning 35-0 in 1949, and LSU securing a 21-14 victory in the BCS National Championship capping the 2003 season.

This year’s CFP matchup between No. 1 LSU and No. 4 Oklahoma will feature the country top two offensive teams in terns of yards per game. LSU leads the nation, averaging 554.4 yards per contest, while the Sooners have averaged 554.2 yards per game.

Both teams have the ability and the firepower to put up plenty of points, but it is defense that will be the difference maker in the opening national semifinal game on Dec. 28. The team that gets the most defensive stops and wins the turnover battle will come out the winner and advance to the national championship against the winner of the Ohio State-Clemson game.

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