The Kansas Jayhawks have won one of their last 19 games. The Sooners are 40 point favorites. The game is in Norman. Basically, this game seems to have all the makings of a blowout. However, these are not last year's Jayhawks. This year, Kansas led TCU until late in the fourth quarter. They were also led Oklahoma State until around the end of the first half. They may not be winning Big 12 games yet, but this is not team Oklahoma faced last season.
Kansas head coach David Beaty has seriously boosted Kansas' recruiting in his short time there, and the team's strength and conditioning coaches have also been hard at work: according to a Sooner Sports podcast, last year Kansas had 3 players on the team who could run a sub 4.6 second 40-yard dash. This year, Kansas has 35 such players. The same sources report that numbers in the weight room are vastly improved as well.
With that in mind, I don't necessarily recommend betting against the team who held TCU to 24 points (they put up 46 against Oklahoma). There's a shot Kansas makes this game interesting. Here's what to watch for as they try to do pull a massive upset in Norman:
Strength vs. Strength
Per game, Kansas ranks 8th in the country in terms of tackles for loss per game. Making plays in the backfield can go a long way toward changing the tone of a game; against TCU, for example, Kansas forced three interceptions largely by pressuring the quarterback. Dorance Armstrong, Jr. is tied with Oklahoma's Ogbonnia Okoronkwo for second in the conference in sacks, and he'll be looking to improve those numbers today.
Unfortunately for Kansas, the Oklahoma offense has really hit its stride, as we explored in more detail here. The Sooners are both running it and throwing it as well as any team in the country, so when Oklahoma has the ball tonight it will be a battle of strength vs. strength.
Frankly, you should be watching Dede Westbrook every game until further notice. In the last four games, Westbrook has 194 receiving yards per game (more than 22 yards-per-catch), and ten touchdowns. Those numbers are unreal. He's catapulted himself into strong contention for the Biletnikoff Award for the nations' best wide receiver. Kansas' passing defense is certainly respectable (57th nationally in yards-per-game allowed), but frankly they don't have a player capable of covering Westbrook for an entire game. If you let your guard down for a moment or make a single mistake, he's gone.
Baker Mayfield will continue to look for him today as Kansas tries to limit the time he has to throw the ball.
This week, Matt Romar, Charles Walker, Matt Dimon, and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo are all out for the game today. The injury list continues to grow longer, meaning that new players are going to get their chances to make plays. Perhaps most notably, Okoronkwo's absence opens the door for young linebackers Ricky DeBerry and Caleb Kelly. Those two are likely to be major contributors to Oklahoma's future, and some of that may begin today. Although the defense this year has been bad, there are a lot of young players waiting in the wing (not to mention the recruiting class for next year, which is shaping up to be incredible) ready to contribute. We've already seen Neville Gallimore get major playing time on the defensive line, and now it's time to see how the young linebackers can play, too.
Can Oklahoma give a quarterback problems?
The answer to that question, so far, has been a resounding "no." The Sooners have struggled mightily to shut down opposing quarterbacks all season, culminating in the disastrous performance of a week ago against Texas Tech. This week should be a little better for the OU defense. In fact, if there is going to be a spot in the schedule where Oklahoma can gain confidence, it's probably today; the quarterback position seems to be the most glaring weakness on this Jayhawks team, and they haven't really settled on one guy who they seem to particularly like. Montell Cozart is the starter for them today, but Kansas has been known the pull the starter if they don't like where things are going.
Oklahoma has yet to put any such pressure on a quarterback, but Cozart might provide some chances. In limited action this year he's thrown six interceptions and only seven touchdowns. After national shame last week, Mike Stoops desperately needs to have his squad put on a show today, and he'll likely be looking to add both sacks and interceptions to the team stat sheet. If OU can actually do that, they should win comfortably. Frankly, though, this defense has yet to provide a real reason for optimism, so I'll hold my breath.
At the end of the day, a much-improved Kansas team is still a long ways away from being Oklahoma's equal, so I do think the Sooners can win this game without too much drama. But last week Oklahoma feasted on a miserable defense, and Kansas should be better than that. As long as the Sooners can take advantage of a struggling Kansas offense, they should be able to win going away. I've got OU winning (but not covering the spread) 48-27.