A number of college football experts around the country have gone on record predicting that the 2021 Oklahoma football season may be the year the Sooners finally get over the hump and make it to the finish line.
The hump, of course, is a reference to Oklahoma’s 0-4 record in the College Football Playoff and the finish line representing playing for and winning a national championship.
Given the high expectations, the Sooners will probably be favored in all 12 of their regular-season games — at least until proven otherwise. It’s always easy to get up for and rise to the level of the competition in the high-profile games — like OU-Texas and in Bedlam against in-state rival Oklahoma State.
It’s the games that don’t stand out as much on the schedule that often pose the greatest chance for an upset, These are the games in which it is easy for teams with the superior edge in talent to get lulled into the trap of playing down to the competition. When that happens, anything and everything is possible, and that’s when good teams set themselves up for an ambush.
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When you’re contending for a national championship, even one slip up can be catastrophic.
In looking ahead to OU’s 2021 schedule, there are several games that jump out as truly big games.
The third game of the season, Sept. 18 at home against Nebraska, may not be as big as it once was when the two longtime football powers were members of the same conference, but trust me, the hype and tradition associated with this game between longtime rivals makes it a very big deal.
For one thing, it is the first time Oklahoma and Nebraska have played each other since the 2010 Big 12 championship game, won by Oklahoma. It also marks the 50th anniversary of the classic 1971 game between then-No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Oklahoma that was billed, and will forever be remembered as, the “Game of the Century.
And let’s face it, anytime the Sooners and Cornhuskers go to battle on the football field it is going to be a big game, regardless of what the records are.
It goes without saying that the annual Red River Showdown with Texas and the regular-season finale with Oklahoma State are huge games every season. And this season, the Nov. 20 final home game of the year with Iowa State, picked to finish second behind the Sooners in the Big 12 standings, shapes up as the biggest game on the Oklahoma schedule.
Oklahoma has to come out on top over archrival Texas, Iowa State and Oklahoma State to have a realistic chance of making the playoff and having a shot at an eighth national crown, and probably has to win at least two of the three to remain in contention for a conference title.
Although historically the Sooners have played extremely well on the road (winners of 26 of their last 28 true road games and 15-2 in such games under Lincoln Riley), the two games I believe will be the biggest for Oklahoma next season in terms of being potential trap games are both road encounters.
On Oct. 2, the Sooners play at Kansas State. OU has won 7 of its last eight games played in Manhattan, Kansas, since 2000, but has lost each of the last two seasons to the Wildcats and new head coach Chris Klieman. The Sooners have lost just eight times in 50 games with Riley as head coach and two of those losses are to K-State.
Three of the last four meetings between Oklahoma and Kansas State have been decided by seven points, and the Sooners did not play particularly well in any of the three.
The Wildcats are picked to finish seventh this season in the Big 12 Preseason Media Poll, but K-State has a four-year starter returning at quarterback in Skylar Thompson and a definite game-changing playmaker in sophomore running back Deuce Vaughn.
K-State has shown in defeating Oklahoma the past two seasons that it has the capability to score with the Sooners. Plus, this season the Cats will have the home crowd in their favor when OU comes to town. This game sets up as a dangerous one on the Oklahoma 2021 schedule.
The other game that could pose a lot of unexpected problems for the six-time defending Big 12 champions is a road contest at Baylor on Nov. 13.
The Sooners have won nine of the last 12 games with Baylor, but two of those three losses were at Baylor. And OU fans will recall the last time the Sooners visited Waco they overcame a 21-point halftime deficit, scoring 24 unanswered second-half points to pull out a remarkable 34-31 come-from-behind victory against a very good Baylor team.
Oklahoma’s last three games at Baylor were decided by 10 or fewer points, and in the Sooners’ last four trips there, Baylor owns a plus-eight point differential.
The Baylor game is one Oklahoma should win (they could be favored by as many as three touchdowns), but it is also one they could easily loose, especially if they get caught looking ahead to the next week, when the Sooners host Iowa State.
Playoff-caliber teams generally don’t roll through the regular season without a scare or two along the way. And it’s not always the marquee games on the schedule that present the biggest challenges.
You have to be ready to play each and every week and make sure you take care of business, especially against the teams you’re supposed to beat. The two games that clearly fall into that category for Oklahoma in the coming season are Kansas State and Baylor.