Oklahoma football: Better ‘D’ why OU aims to finally fulfill expectations

NORMAN, OK - APRIL 24: The Oklahoma Sooners defense gathers after their spring game at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on April 24, 2021 in Norman, Oklahoma. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
NORMAN, OK - APRIL 24: The Oklahoma Sooners defense gathers after their spring game at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on April 24, 2021 in Norman, Oklahoma. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images) /

Since Lincoln Riley took over as head coach of the Oklahoma football program, the Sooners have been right there with the best of them at or near the top of the college football rankings.

Related Story. Defense is OU's difference maker in 2021 season. light

If OU wasn’t there at No. 4 or 5 to begin the season, Riley’s guys were there at the end.

Every season, when you pick up one of the college football preview publications or scan social media for the latest college news and opinion, you find most of the high-level offseason and preseason praise directed at four different schools from four different conferences.

I’m speaking specifically of Alabama in the SEC, Clemson in the ACC, Ohio State in the Big Ten and, of course, Oklahoma in the Big 12. Georgia, another SEC school, manages to squeeze in among the other four fairly often, as well, as part of the national conversation. But everyone else is basically an afterthought.

There’s a good reason you find these same usual suspects at the top of every national college national ranking at the start of every season. They are all the dominant teams in their respective teams and, as such, they are consistent winners. Like the Sooners, Clemson has won six consecutive ACC championships, Ohio State has won four straight Big Ten titles and Alabama has won five of the last seven SEC championships.

Oklahoma is fortunate to be in the Big 12, because when they become part of the SEC their pathway to a national title run will face a much greater challenge.

Oklahoma has been to four playoffs, but has yet to win a game

Between the Sooners, Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, those four schools have filled 20 of the 28 semifinal spots in the seven-year history of the College Football Playoff.

Oklahoma has participated as one of the four teams in seven of playoff years, including three in a row from 2017 to 2019. The Sooners are a favorite to make it back to the playoff in 2021 after a year’s absence, but this time the reasoning and expectations behind OU’s leading-contender status are much different than previously.

Even though the Sooners have made four playoff appearances, they have failed to make it past the opening game. That could all change this time around if Oklahoma is able to  live up to 2021 expectations and make it back for a fifth time and a run at an eighth national championship.

Since Riley arrived in 2015 as OU’s offensive coordinator under Bob Stoops, the Sooners have produced arguably the most explosive offense in college football among FBS teams. In the last five seasons, the Sooners have finished outside of the top three in total offense just once (in 2020, OU was 18th in total offense).

Same old song on offense, but with a much different tune defensively

Every time Oklahoma has made it to the College Football Playoff, it has done so with an offense that was easily good enough to win a national championship. The trouble has been the defense and the inability to get off the field on third down and, most importantly, keep opponents out of the end zone. The Sooners weren’t good enough to rely simply on outscoring their opponents, especially when it came to the best teams in the country.

So what’s different this season? A defense under coordinator Alex Grinch that may now have caught up with OU’s top-rated offense in terms of talent and depth. And that is really saying something, given the depths this defense had fallen to prior to Grinch’s arrival.

The season before Grinch arrived in Norman, in 2018, the Sooners ranked 114th in total defense and 130th out of 130 FBS teams in passing defense. Oklahoma. led by Heisman-winning quarterback Kyler Murray, faced top-ranked Alabama in one of the national semifinal games that season. The Sooners yielded 28 consecutive points in a little over a quarter to start the game and were beaten before they even got the country’s top-ranked offense on track.

OU has made dramatic improvement under Grinch’s leadership and defensive system. A year ago, Oklahoma was fifth in the country in defensive efficiency, and a number of experts have projected the Sooners will again have a top-10 defense in 2021.

It’s taken a couple of seasons, but the Sooners now have the experience with seven returning defensive starters, the right players in the right positions to fit Grinch’s system, and depth at all levels of the defensive unit. That’s an ideal scenario for a team that has struggled on defense for a good part of the past decade.

The Sooners’ strength on defense is in the front seven, which is expected to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season, stymie the run game, and in doing so take pressure away from the back end, which in the past has had difficulty preventing big plays downfield.

This is finally an Oklahoma defense that is more than capable of delivering that elusive eighth national championship to the trophy case in the Barry Switzer Center in Norman.

Lofty expectations are nothing unusual to Oklahoma football. Lincoln Riley said his team is not phased or concerned by the high expectations that are seemingly a part of every OU football season.

“I can’t ever remember a year coming in where people thought we were just going to be horrible,” Riley said during a press conference on Wednesday. “Our expectations haven’t changed. They’re the same every single year.

Part of those expectations is to block out all the outside noise and concentrate on being the best, both individually and collectively, the Sooners can be.

“I don’t care what team, what year, win, loss, whatever,” Riley said. “When we’ve played at a high level, and when we’ve controlled the things we can control, we’ve won just about all of them. I can’t think of one that I feel like we had just no shot.”

That’s the game plan for the 2021 season, as well. The difference this season is the Sooners have all the tools in the tool box to finish the job and fulfill those lofty season expectations.