In a few hours the Sooners will run out onto Jones AT&T Stadium to face off against the Red Raiders. Here's your guide to the game, featuring my keys to the game, some things to watch for, and predictions.
Things to watch
1) Life without Samaje
This is the first full game the Sooners will play without Samaje Perine this year. Joe Mixon is certainly talented, but I'm curious to see how he plays getting the full workload. He may have benefitted from the one-two punch the Sooners like to feature, which gives Mixon plenty of rest, so we will probably see his endurance tested more than normal. Expect Abdul Adams to get some playing time to offset that issue. On that note, the Sooners will lean away from Mixon as the main man in the return game, since they won't want to risk getting him tired or hurt on kickoffs and punts.
No matter who is at running back, expect the Sooners to run the ball repeatedly. Texas Tech is not well known for their run defense (at least, not in a good way), so expect Oklahoma to attack on the ground regardless of the running back. OU's offensive line hasn't been perfect this year, but they've shown good flashes and should have the definite advantage over Tech's defensive line.
2) The other team’s gunslinger
Tech's best player (by a good margin) is Patrick Mahomes II. When you talk about the best quarterback in the Big 12, you're likely either talking about Baker Mayfield or Mahomes. He's got great arm strength, and may have the best arm in college football when he's on the run. If Texas Tech is going to challenge Oklahoma, they'll need Mahomes to be at his best.
Unfortunately for Texas Tech, though, Mahomes appears to be playing through an injury. After a subpar game last week (at least by his standards), Mahomes was actually replaced in the fourth quarter. If he's not healthy, Texas Tech could have a big problem keeping pace in what could otherwise be a high scoring game.
3) The pass defense
Oklahoma's pass defense has struggled at times this year, particularly with the deep ball. While Mahomes' health is a question mark for the Red Raiders, expect them to test the Sooners down the field regardless of who's taking snaps or how great they're feeling.
The Sooners' defensive backs have actually improved slightly in the last few weeks, making some good plays on the ball. Unfortunately, they're still getting burned deep at times, and that's a bad problem to have when you're playing Texas Tech. Watch Jordan Thomas is breaking up passes but allowed Kansas State to beat him deep a few times. Opposite Thomas should be Jordan Parker, who has shown flashes of talent but is still very young.
Without Charles Walker again, the Sooners may need to blitz aggressively to make sure they put pressure on Mahomes. Even if he is playing with some pain, if he has time to throw I have a hard time believing he won't find someone open eventually.
4) The environment
Oklahoma appears to be the more talent team in this matchup, but they've had struggles in Lubbock before (they lost three straight in Lubbock between 2005 and 2009).
The atmosphere tonight could be particularly electric (or toxic) as Mayfield makes his first return to Lubbock since he left a few years ago. Texas Tech has a good quarterback of their own, but there's not a lot of love between Mayfield and Texas Tech, and the Tech fans will probably not be offering him a warm reception.
That being said, the Sooners have been doing just fine in road games lately, winning their last eight "true" road games, and 19 of their last 21. That's pretty impressive, and Oklahoma should be able to continue that momentum today if they play well.
Keys to the game
1) Throw the ball all over the field, but don't abandon the run.
Dede Westbrook is on a tear, and I'm not sure any team in the country can cover Mark Andrews. Tech will have problems trying to contain Oklahoma's passing game. That being said, the biggest advantage in this game for Oklahoma is going to be its running game against Tech's run defense. Even though the game could end up being a barn-burner, Oklahoma needs to remember that it can put up big points using the ground game, too.
2) Take advantage of mistakes
Mahomes is going to have some level of success today. There's really no way to shut down someone of his caliber. But that doesn't mean there won't be opportunities to capitalize on some occasional errors. Last year the Sooners used a combination of good pass rushing and good deep coverage to force Mahomes into four interceptions. It's no coincidence that in that same game Oklahoma rolled over Tech 63-27.
Mahomes won't make a ton of error, but to give themselves the best chance, the Oklahoma defense needs to keep him from hitting the home run. Play good coverage deep, make him throw the short passes, and hope that eventually you can get pressure on him and force a bad throw before he gets his team to the end zone.
3) Don't turn it over
Last season, Oklahoma was getting ready to bury Texas Tech early in the game, but repeated turnovers kept Tech in the game far longer than it should have. This should be a game where Oklahoma is able to move the ball very well, so the biggest risk will be turnovers. Everyone needs to hold onto the ball. If the Sooners don't give away possessions, I don't see any way for Texas Tech to keep pace today.
If Mahomes were 100%, this game could be a real shoot out. I don't think he's completely healthy, though, and I think Oklahoma is going to be able to control the time of possession enough to keep its defense fresh and force a few mistakes from Tech's normally solid offense. Texas Tech allowed 44 points to Kansas State, and 68 to Arizona State. With the pace Oklahoma should play today, I think they'll split the difference. I've got Oklahoma winning 56-38.
Am I right? Wrong? Missing something? Let me know in the comments.