Football season is finally here, and it's about time. Across the country schools are cutting the grass, painting the lines, and assembling fresh uniforms.
The return of football, though, doesn't look exactly the same for everyone. While LSU prepares for Wisconsin, USC and Alabama get ready to face off in Jerry World, and OU travels down to play a top-15 Houston team, not every school has chosen to start the season with a bang (yes, Baylor, we're looking at you). It's not exactly a secret that some schools choose to schedule difficult or high-profile games while other schools prefer a few warm-up exercises before they head into conference play. Michigan State, for example, will open on Friday afternoon against the Furman Paladins. However, at least the Spartans are taking the rest of their non-conference schedule seriously; their other out-of-conference opponents this year will be Norte Dame and BYU. Meanwhile, teams like Baylor seem to prefer three games against Southern Northwestern State Tech every year, then wonder why no one takes them seriously.
The team from Norman has a long history of scheduling meaningful games outside of their conference. Last year the Sooners finished a series against Tennessee, and recent history has seen OU play the likes of Florida State and Notre Dame. While it is now a requirement that Big 12 schools schedule at least one game against a Power 5 team (or Notre Dame), the Sooners have been at this for a while.
The Sooners' non-conference schedule should be a point of pride for the program. The schedule consistently puts OU among the schools who go out of their way to play difficult games. Those difficult games often help bolster a school's national reputation, and they can also provide a bit more room to stumble in other games down the road, as OU found out last year when it made the playoffs despite a strange loss to Texas but with a strong win in Tennessee helping to hold up its résumé on the whole.
Of course, if tough non-conference games had no downside, everyone would be doing it. The truth is that schedules like the ones the Sooners have this year (headlined by Houston and Ohio State) also pose some serious risk. While Baylor probably won't gain any respect for its scheduling tendencies, it will probably win three football games and start conference play fresh, free from any battle scars that could hurt teams who chose a tougher path. If OU runs the table this year, their schedule will probably demand that they're the country's number one team, but if they want to win every game they won't have any room for mistakes or growing pains.
With the first of two games against ranked opponents in non-conference play coming in week one, the Sooners will need to iron out any kinks with a special kind of urgency this season. There will be no warm-up, walk-through, or dress rehearsal before OU stares down a team with a real chance to beat it. With this OU team in particular, that means that some questions surrounding the roster will be answered live on Saturday for the whole country to see. We will all find out together whether the new pieces implemented on the offensive line will be able to open enough holes to let Samaje Perine establish a ground attack that the Sooners hope will free up the passing game. Speaking of that passing game, we'll all find out in Houston which wide receivers will step up to fill the crater of a void left by Sterling Shepard. Some may take it for granted that the offense will hum along like it did last year, but in order for that to happen Baker Mayfield may need a reliable target to help him make lemonade from lemons whenever the pass protection breaks down. If the Sooners have that man, the pre-season hype may actually be an understatement. If not, though, it could be another year of missed opportunity.
The defense will be answering questions as well. What will a secondary look like after its best cornerback from 2015 is fighting for playing time on the Carolina Panthers now? Will the Sooners defense that ranked top in the conference a year ago be able to match that standard without one of the most dynamic linebackers to rock the Crimson and Cream in years? Can new pieces on the defensive line, linebacker group, and the secondary mesh together in a way that looks like last year's team, or will we see occasional missed assignments that can doom any team in the high-flying Big 12?
Right now there's no shortage of questions or speculation. The "will they" or "won't they" has been permeating minds and message boards since the Sooners walked off the Orange Bowl field to end their season a year ago. The Sooners are poised to boast a schedule that should earn them plenty of respect, but that schedule also means that Stoops & Co. are going to have to answer these questions and more, and they'll have to do it quickly. There won't be an Akron match-up to help the team correct any early miscalculations.
But the great teams know that it's worth it. They'll take the risk because it gives them all they really need: a chance to be great. So far 8 teams have made the College Football Playoff, and every one of those teams had a non-conference game against either a Power 5 opponent or Notre Dame. Simply put, you don't get respect for taking the easy way out. For the 2016 Oklahoma Sooners, respect is certainly out there for the taking. They'll get two great chances to showcase the recruiting, game-planning, and training they've been working on before they turn to face the Big 12.
So will the Sooners walk out of Houston with an impressive win that solidifies their spot as a serious contender, or will they be left scrambling to save a season that could be at risk before it really gets started? The good news for fans is that we'll get to find out all at once on Saturday. The dangerous news for the Sooners is that they may be forced to answer these questions before they're ready. For now, all we know for sure is that football season is finally here. It's about time.