Even though he and the Sooners just finished a four game sequence that included Clemson, Houston, and Ohio State, Baker Mayfield is about to enter the most important stretch of his career so far.
But first, he has an off week to get it figured out, to lead by example, and to focus on the task at hand.
I work in sports talk radio, so I heard roughly a thousand reasons why Oklahoma lost to Ohio State. The
talking heads disembodied voices offered reasons that varied in legitimacy, but (as always) the simplest one made the most sense: Ohio State was the better team. The same thing could have been said about their losses to Clemson and Houston, too. Oklahoma was not only out-coached and out-played, but out-talented.
As for the talent issue: help is coming. The recruiting classes of the next few years are as strong as they’ve ever been. #SoonerSquad17 should make an immediate impact in some spots on the field, but that won’t help now. And it’s not like OU can trade another team for, say, a decent cornerback.
As for what’s at hand, the present, the here-and-now: this is Baker Mayfield’s team, his destiny to control. And he’s disappointed so far. On paper, his 2016 stats seem pretty good: 55-85, 793 yards, seven touchdowns, two interceptions.
He doesn’t pass the eye test, though. Against superior competition (read: non-Big 12 teams), his play has been suspect. He hasn’t showcased the scrambling and improvising ability that separates himself from the average college quarterback. His accuracy has been suspect: he’s overthrown and underthrown receivers on a regular basis. Our own Graham Dudley broke down Baker’s second interception of last week’s game:
Rather than scrambling, throwing the ball away, or hitting a less-covered Geno Lewis, Mayfield “fired a bullet as hard as he could towards Jarvis Baxter. Now, I don’t know what Baker was looking at, but by the time Baxter actually entered the shot, he was being draped by Marshon Lattimore—owner of multiple Tulsa interceptions—and Lattimore was a step in front of Baxter by the time the ball arrived.”
Against the likes of Texas Tech, Kansas State, West Virginia, Mayfield may be able to produce a Benny Hill-esque chase scene before he throws a cross-field bomb; however, a Tier-1 team like Houston or Ohio State will run him down and/or force him into a mistake.
Now, the Sooners (1-2 for the first time since 2005), will face a stretch of games that will define their season. If they manage victories against Texas Christian and Texas, they may yet be able to salvage a decent season, even by Sooner standards. Hell, if everything goes their way, OU could conceivably still make it into the College Football Playoff. However, if Oklahoma loses one or both of these games, they could be well on their way to a (*gulp*) 8-5 season. This, folks, is a crossroads.
None of this is to say that the blame falls squarely on Baker Mayfield’s shoulders. It’s pretty clear that most of OU’s problems have been on the other side of the ball, with the lion’s share of the problems coming from the secondary. Stoops and Co. also deserve a healthy heaping of blame for poor motivation and game-planning. Like the coach, though, the quarterback is the sacrificial lamb when things go wrong. And rightfully so.
Despite the rough going so far, I fully believe Baker Mayfield is a Heisman-caliber player. He’s what football writers and broadcasters refer to as a gamer. He hasn’t quite proven it this year, but Mayfield had many of us convinced last season that he is a a transcendent talent who can win games through sheer force of will (see: 2015 Tennessee, Oklahoma State games). If Mayfield wants to salvage his team’s season, coming out of Forth Worth and the Cotton Bowl 2-0 will be imperative. If Mayfield can will the Sooners to victory against a perpetually good TCU and a resurgent Texas squad, then there’s still a lot to play for yet this season.