The first Sooners game of the year is practically a state holiday. Even though it's not at home this year, thousands of OU faithful will be converging on Houston this Saturday while millions more tune in on TV. There will be nachos, pizza, beer. I get it. I'm not trying to rain on anyone's parade. I'm just saying--
The Sooners might lose.
OU fans have grown understandably used to rolling through Week One, as Oklahoma tends to host cupcakes like directional Louisianas and urban, low-enrollment private schools. They haven't dropped a Week One contest since BYU in 2009, but Houston has a decent chance to change that trend.
Even though I'm picking OU to take this one, Sooners fans need to recognize the challenge that Houston will pose. Here are a few potential roadblocks to an Oklahoma victory on Saturday:
The most obvious path to defeat in this one would be significant snaps for Austin Kendall, Baker Mayfield's true freshman backup. This will be true for most of the season--Kendall will probably be pretty good one day, maybe even take the job in two years, but I don't like his chances to outduel Greg Ward Jr. (or J.T. Barrett, Seth Russell, Kenny Hill, Mason Rudolph or Pat Mahomes) over 60 minutes.
Other than Baker, OU would have a hard time pulling this one out without Samaje Perine, who's had the occasional health scare in his first two seasons. Jordan Thomas would be tough to replace effectively, and a Jordan Evans injury would leave a real leadership void in the middle of the defense. There aren't a ton of guys the Sooners can't play without in Houston, but those four would be a big problem.
Not to state the obvious here, but Greg Ward Jr. can't run over this defense like Deshaun Watson did if OU expects to win. Ward had 44 rushes for 10+ yards last season, and he can do it again this year. If Ward or new Cougars running back Duke Catalon can get past the line and into the second level, Tay Evans and the other new linebackers will have to tackle consistently.
Houston will probably stay away from Jordan Thomas and attack Dakota Austin and Will Johnson through the air. The cornerbacks have proven themselves before, but they'll have to keep the hostile crowd and NFL stadium from shaking their confidence in a show-me start. Otherwise, Ward will throw at them--and over them--all day.
If OU loses this game, it will probably be because of poor execution. The Sooners have a more talented roster and more big-game experience than the Cougs, but if a Shepard-less receiving corps starts dropping passes or the team plays poorly on special teams (Houston kick returner Brandon Wilson did return two kickoffs for touchdowns last year), this one could get out of hand.
Houston lost a lot in its secondary and is ripe to be beaten through the air, but OU's largely unknown wideouts will have to take advantage. Lincoln Riley probably won't have the option to save half his playbook for Big 12 play this year, and the Sooners will need lots of points to keep up with an offense that averaged 40.4 per game last season. Against that kind of production, the Sooners will be just a handful of dumb penalties, turnovers and missed assignments away from dropping this one.
For fans who think this Sooners squad is good enough to go back to the Playoff--and make some noise when they get there--this is the best Week One test you could ask for. The Cougars are a tough but not invincible opponent that can bolster a Playoff resume and make it easier to overlook one loss, much like Tennessee did last year. Houston will remain a trendy upset pick until the Sooners prove otherwise. It's going to be a fun first week.