Oklahoma football: New set of stars take the stage in Sooners’ opener

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 01: Fireworks explode near the giant Ferris wheel of the London Eye on the South Bank of the River Thames as thousands gather to ring in the near year on January 1, 2018 in London, England. Crowds lined the banks of the River Thames in central London to see in 2018 with a spectacular fireworks display. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 01: Fireworks explode near the giant Ferris wheel of the London Eye on the South Bank of the River Thames as thousands gather to ring in the near year on January 1, 2018 in London, England. Crowds lined the banks of the River Thames in central London to see in 2018 with a spectacular fireworks display. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images) /
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When game day arrives on Saturday, it will have been 259 days since the last Oklahoma football game.

Because of the disappointing way that last game ended — a 35-point defeat to eventual national champion LSU — and the devastating months that have followed in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Sooner fans are more than hungry for college football and a new opportunity for their beloved Oklahoma football team to make a run at an eighth national championship.

The Sooners kick off the 2020 season against the Missouri State Bears out of the Missouri Valley Conference. A season opener at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium would normally be a sellout. Oklahoma has had 129 consecutive home sellouts since the start of the 1999 season, but with COVID-19 dramatically altering all of our daily lives, this year has been anything but normal.

There will be 21,000 or fewer fans in the stands on Saturday, which may be the lowest attendance figure in the history of the 13th largest college football venue and the second largest in the Big 12, based on capacity.

Missouri State resides in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), the level below the FBS. On top of that, the Bears were just 1-10 last season and ranked 116th out of 124 FCS teams in total offense and 101st in total defense.

The Missouri Valley Conference elected to opt out of playing football in the fall this year, but it will allow its member schools to play games out of the conference if they choose. At this time, the Bears are scheduled to play three games this fall. In addition to playing at Oklahoma, Missouri State will play a home-and-home series with Arkansas State.

On paper, this would appear to be a giant mismatch, but before everyone rushes to judgment in questioning why Oklahoma would schedule such an obviously inferior opponent, it’s important to remember that the Sooners were also scheduled to play Tennessee and travel to play at Army this season. Those games were cancelled as a result of the revamped scheduling in college football this season and because of fewer teams participating due to COVID concerns.

Oklahoma is 9-3 in its history against current FCS teams, but has played just five such opponents since the 1952 seasons. Most recently, the Sooners defeated South Dakota State 70-14 last season.

This not only will be the first game between OU and Missouri State, but also the first time new Bear head coach Bobby Petrino has coached against Oklahoma.

What to watch for from Missouri State

In addition to a new head coach, Missouri State will have a new starting quarterback for its abbreviated fall schedule. Jaden Johnson, a transfer from Southern Mississippi, will be behind center for the Bears, who hope to step up their offensive production under Petrino. Johnson was rated as the No. 20 pro-style quarterback in the country in the 2019 class.

This will be a homecoming of sorts for nine Missouri State players who are from the state of Oklahoma.

Missouri State averaged under 300 yards of offense last season (74 rushing and 210 passing) and 15.4 points a game. That won’t be near enough to remain in the game going up against one of the most prolific offenses in the country. Since the 2015 season, or when Lincoln Riley joined the OU coaching staff, Oklahoma leads all FBS teams in scoring offense.

Senior Lorenzo Thomas and junior Jordan Murray are the two best returning receivers for Missouri State. Thomas ranks 20th in Missouri State career receiving yards, while Murray begins the 2020 season with receptions in 21 consecutive games. Junior tailback Myron Mason will lead the Bears’ ground attack, and he will have his work cut out for him going up against a stout Oklahoma defensive line.

Missouri State does not match up well with the Sooners on either side of the ball, the biggest disparity will come when college football’s third-best offense among FBS teams last season goes toe-to-toe with the defense ranked 101st against FCS teams.

Although Missouri State has not had much success in the win column over the past several years, they don’t make many mistakes that result in penalties. The Bears have been one of the least penalized teams in the FCS for four consecutive years.

What to watch for from Oklahoma

The Sooners return 15 players who started at least eight games a year ago, but their will be plenty of new faces in starting roles in the key skill positions, beginning with highly touted Spencer Rattler at quarterback. Saturday’s game will mark the former No. 1 quarterback prospect’s first collegiate start.

Although this may not be the best opponent against whom to judge Rattler’s true potential, all eyes will clearly be focused on the young QB to see how well he performs in the full-time role. The expectations around the Rattler quarterback era at OU have been huge, but his former and current coaches believe he is ready for the moment and more than capable of shouldering the pressure.

Junior T.J. Pledger and redshirt freshman Marcus Major will be the featured running backs to start the season. The pair combined for just 20 rushes and under 100 total yards between them in limited duty a year ago, but Lincoln Riley and new running backs coach DeMarco Murray are very confident in their ability to get the job done, especially running behind one of the best offensive lines in college football, with all five starters returning in 2020.

The Sooner receiving corps is also younger than has been the case in recent seasons. Junior Charleston Rambo will be a prime receiving target for Rattler, and transfers Theo Howard and Obi Obialo will provide valuable experience. Watch for sophomores Theo Wease and Austin Stogner to get plenty of targets this season, while former No. 1 wide-receiving prospect Jaden Hasselwood recovers from an offseason ACL injury. This could also be a big year for redshirt sophomore Drake Stoops. The Sooners have a lot of depth in the receiving corps, but not the depth of experience typical of past seasons.

On defense, this could be a telling season, as defensive coordinator Alex Grinch begins year two of his “Speed-D” defensive system. The team made major improvement in defensive statistical categories last season, and should continue to get better in 2020. Two areas to keep a close eye on, both in the season opener and as the season progresses, are takeaways and red-zone defense.

OU ranked 101st in the country a year ago with just 11 takeaways total, and 128th out of 130 FBS teams allowing opponents to score 94 percent of the time when they possess the ball inside the Sooner 20-yard line.

Bottom line

The real question in this contest, which amounts to nothing more than a season tune-up for the Sooners, is not who wins, but by how many. There is a good reason this game can only be viewed via pay-for-view. Oklahoma will win this one big, but I’m not expecting anything like 77-0. Lincoln Riley isn’t interested in running up the score and beating an obviously less talented opponent into the ground. Instead it provides an opportunity to see plenty of players in action and get back to playing football again.

Oklahoma is ranked No. 5 in the preseason Associated Press Poll. That represents the highest-ranked opponent Missouri State has ever played.

Oklahoma 59, Missouri State 7