Oklahoma football: What is the Sooners’ fatal flaw in 2021?

Oct 12, 2019; Dallas, TX, USA; Oklahoma Sooners fans hold up the number one prior to the game against the Texas Longhorns at Cotton Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 12, 2019; Dallas, TX, USA; Oklahoma Sooners fans hold up the number one prior to the game against the Texas Longhorns at Cotton Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports /

If you believe all that’s been written and said about what to expect from Oklahoma football in the 2021 season, its easy to conclude there aren’t any glaring weaknesses in this edition of the Sooners.

But we all know from human experience that many things are not as they appear to be and, furthermore, there is no such thing as perfection in any college game or football team.

So, what would be considered Oklahoma’s weakest link or the one fatal flaw that could derail what a number of college football experts could be a national championship year for the Sooners?

The first thing anyone who follows Sooner football needs to understand is that anything short of a College Football Playoff win and a possible national championship this season will be considered if not an unsuccessful season, certainly an unsatisfying one.

That’s certainly a lofty goal, considering only two teams make it as far as the CFP national championship game. In reality, though, this is the goal that Oklahoma sets for itself every season, and this season, the fifth under head coach Lincoln Riley, there are quite a few others who are sharing those expectations right along with the Sooners.

So now that we have all of that background out of the way, what is it that could rise up and turn all of the high expectations for Oklahoma this season on their ear.

This year’s edition of Sooner football — on paper, at least — appears to be more complete and deeper than any of Riley’s previous playoff teams, but there are two areas that give me some concern.

Running back depth

The Sooners’ running back duo of Kennedy Brooks and Tennessee transfer Eric Gray is as good as any team in the country. Those two, however, are the only true running backs on scholarship on the Oklahoma roster. In the past several months, the Sooners have lost four running backs from the depth chart due to reasons including dismissal, ineligibility and transfer.

If either Brooks or Gray — or heaven forbid both — were to go down with an injury during the season, the Sooners ability to run the football could take a serious hit. As long as OU’s two primary RBs are able to share duties, the Sooners should be just fine. But if one of the two goes down and the other is forced to shoulder the full load, that’s when OU becomes more vulnerable to a second injury and the high-powered offensive engine begins to leak oil.

Behind Brooks and Gray are two preferred walk-ons who showed some good things in the Sooners’ spring game this year but have not seen one down of action under actual game conditions. Obviously, Riley will convert one or two of the other skill-position players to serve in a backup RB capacity, but this is only a conditional fix and can’t be counted on as any more than that.

Sooner fans would do well to pray that Brooks and Gray are able to stay healthy and continue to perform at a high level.

Defensive secondary

All indications are that the revamped Oklahoma defense will be the difference maker in the Sooners’ ability to go a step beyond this season and play for the national championship for the first time in 13 years.

The strength of the Sooners much-improved defense, however, rests in a top-notch defensive line and in the front seven. Although OU has gotten better in the back end, in the defensive secondary, as well, if there is a vulnerable part of this Sooner defense it is in the secondary.

Just three years ago, Oklahoma fielded the worst pass defense in the country — dead last, 130th out of 130 FBS teams. While the Sooners improved to 58th in Alex Grinch’s first season as defensive coordinator in 2019, they slipped back to 82nd last season, but yielded 15 fewer touchdown passes than in the 2018 season (12 compared with 27).

The average height of the OU defensive backs is around 6 feet, still a bit smaller that Grinch would ideally like to have in the secondary, and that leaves the Sooners vulnerable when covering the growing number of tall receivers in college football.

Oklahoma has given up more than its share of deep, home-run pass plays in recent years, and against better opponents this seems like a way to attack the Sooner defense again this season.

If edge rusher Nik Bonitto and the OU defensive line are able to apply consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks and if the Sooners are successful stopping the run like they were a year ago, this will eliminate some of the pressure defending pass plays and serve to mitigate any real perceived vulnerabilities defending the deep ball.