No one is giving the Oklahoma football team much of a chance to knock off No. 1 LSU in the opening game of the College Football Playoff on Saturday. Frankly most folks expect LSU to blow the barn doors off of the Sooners.
After all, we’re talking about the SEC champion versus the five-time defending champions of the Big 12. Many believe that fact alone says it all. All the talk is about who will survive the Ohio State-Clemson game and play LSU for the national championship. Oklahoma has been relegated to a mere afterthought, if that, in the entire championship conversation.
It is true that the Sooners are going to have to play a near-perfect game to pull off an upset over an LSU team that has already beaten five teams ranked in the top 10 (two in the top five) at the time the game was played.
But we also know the bounce of a football can be unpredictable and strange things can and have happened (think OU-Florida State in the 2001 national championship game and OU-Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl, or even OU-Boise State in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl).
Short of a total LSU collapse on Saturday in its Peach Bowl showdown with No. 4 Oklahoma, here are five things — or a combination thereof — that must go the Sooners’ way for OU to literally shock the college football world with an upset over LSU and earn its first Playoff win in four tries.
Run the football effectively and shorten the game
In a pair of wins over Big 12 runner-up Baylor and in-state rival Oklahoma State to close out the regular season Oklahoma ran the ball well, sustained drives and controlled the clock, thus shortening the game and, most importantly, keeping the opposing offense on the sidelines and limiting possessions and scoring opportunities.
Controlling the ball and the clock is the best defense Oklahoma can throw at LSU. Of course, the Sooners have to be able to convert those long drives into points, ideally touchdowns.
Start fast and score early
Oklahoma has outscored its opponents 151-42 in the first quarter this season. Scoring first and getting out to an early lead will be a huge confidence builder and momentum boost. That won’t be an easy task against a solid LSU defense that has given up only 40 first-quarter points all season and just 114 in the first half, outscoring its opponents by the combined score of 338 to 114 in the first 30 minutes.
Moreover, a ball control game is only effective if you are ahead or behind by no more than one score.
Don’t turn the ball over
The last thing the Sooners can afford to do in a game of this magnitude is turn the ball over and give LSU extra scoring opportunities. Jalen Hurts is the guiltiest Sooner of all in this category. He has thrown seven interceptions and is fortunate that number isn’t higher. He also has fumbled in critical situations in several games.
Oklahoma’s minus-7 turnover margin ranks 110th among FBS teams. LSU, on the other hand, ranks 16th nationally in this category with a plus-eight turnover margin.
Bottom line: Oklahoma cannot lose the turnover battle and win this game. It is going to be difficult enough to win the game with no turnovers; the Sooners can’t afford to give the game away.
The OU defense needs to make the LSU offense earn its points
No team this season has been able to shut down the LSU offense, which ranks first nationally in yards per game and third in scoring. The Sooners need to stop the LSU run game, including Joe Burrow’s ability to run with the ball, prevent big pass plays and get third-down stops, particularly in third-and-long situations.
The LSU passing game is too good behind Joe Burrow and a bevy of speedy, sure-handed receivers. If Burrow is given too much time and not pressured, he will carve up the OU secondary and this game could get very ugly.
The Sooners want to get pressure on the LSU quarterback and mix up/disguise their coverages, forcing him to hold on to the ball or make bad throws. At the very least, Oklahoma doesn’t want to allow LSU’s talented receivers to get behind them for long passing touchdowns, or big plays that set up the Tigers inside the red zone (LSU ranks second in the country in red zone offense).
The more Alex Grinch’s OU defensive unit can force LSU to have to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns, the better the Sooners’ chances will be to win the game.
Jalen Hurts must deliver an MVP performance
Jalen Hurts needs to play a turnover-free game and shine both throwing the football and with his legs when the situation calls for it. He can’t try to win the game all by himself. He must make good decisions with the ball and take full advantage of all the talented Sooner offensive weapons he has around him.
The Oklahoma quarterback has been in this situation more than anyone else on the field for either side. This will be Hurts’ seventh appearance in a College Football Playoff game. He must play like it and deliver an MVP performance.
CeeDee Lamb is a consensus 2019 All-American. He wanted badly to win the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s most outstanding receiver this season. Instead, that honor went to LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. Both players will be in action in this game, and you can expect that Lamb will come in with a chip on his shoulder and the determination to show that the Biletnikoff voters got it wrong.
Lamb is a game-changer and arguably the best player on the Oklahoma team. He will get the full attention of the LSU defense. The Sooners need to get the ball in his hands as early and as often they can and allow him to make plays after the catch. The attention Lamb draws will likely leave other Sooner receivers open. Lamb’s advantage as a decoy can’t be overlooked.