Like most Sooner fans around the country yesterday, it took some time for the loss to Iowa State to really sink in for me. The Cyclones had not beaten the Sooners since the dark ages of the 1990’s, and after the first quarter it seemed like another day at the office for Baker Mayfield and co. The Oklahoma Sooners jumped out to a 14-0 lead and looked dominant in the first quarter. Following this strong start, the Cyclones were able to keep the Sooner offense off the field and have their way with the Sooner defense down the stretch. This resulted in the Sooners coming up short and suffering one of their most embarrassing losses in modern history.
Although a little Jefferson’s Reserve bourbon helped me cool down late last night, I am just as frustrated as the rest of you by the Sooners’ abysmal performance at home against the Cyclones. I agree with the fellow writers on this site and most Sooners fans out there that Mike Stoops needs to go, but I want to discuss how we move forward after yesterday’s defeat.
Mike Stoops will most likely remain as DC at least until the end of the season and — for better or worse — we are stuck with what we have for the remainder of the season. Despite the loss, there’s still a path to the College Football Playoff, a Big 12 Championship and a Baker Mayfield Heisman. In other words, all is not lost, though the margin for error for the Sooners just got significantly slimmer. In order to accomplish goals, OU will need to fix some glaring issues, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Path to the CFP
With Michigan losing to Michigan State yesterday, it seems like the path to the playoff for the Sooners will depend on the Big Ten and the Pac-12. I don’t see Bama or Clemson losing the rest of they way, and even if they do, I think the CFP committee will give them the benefit of the doubt and put them into the playoff as one-loss conference champions.
In the Big Ten, I think Penn State will slip up and Ohio State will likely win out, which would leave the Buckeyes as Big Ten champions. If the Sooners are also able to win out (which is a huge if considering how they played yesterday), then they would likely get into the playoff over Ohio State because of their convincing win in Columbus. On the other hand, all of the Big Ten teams could beat up on each other and make it so that no Big Ten team makes the playoff, which could open up a spot for the Big 12 champion.
As far as the Pac-12 is concerned, the three contenders for a playoff spot are WSU, USC and Washington. WSU has shown promise early on, but it will be extremely tough for them to run the table. The same goes for Washington, who will likely face USC in the conference title game, which could leave a two-loss Pac-12 champion, in which case the Big 12 champion (provided it doesn’t have more than one loss) would get into the playoff along with the winner of the Big Ten, Clemson and Alabama. Fans of contenders in the Big 12 and Pac-12 need to also hope for Notre Dame to lose one more game.
If there are multiple two-loss conference champions, then OU could potentially drop another game, win the Big 12, and still make the playoff, but that is an extremely unlikely scenario. The Sooners likely have to win out and dominate in the Big 12 title game to make the playoff.
Path to a Big 12 title
With a conference loss already, the Sooners will need to step up their game significantly against the likes of Texas, TCU, and Oklahoma State to win the conference. On top of this, they need to be ready to play Kansas State and Texas Tech, since every team in the Big 12 is capable of upsetting the Sooners at this point, with the exception of Kansas. From here on out, Oklahoma may just need to prepare for shootouts. If the offenses of Iowa State and Baylor are capable of lighting up the Sooner defense, teams like TCU and Oklahoma State could have a field day as well.
With the loss to Iowa State, Baker Mayfield’s Heisman chances did take a substantial hit, but he is still in the thick of the race. If he can end the 2017 season like he ended the 2015 and 2016 seasons, he will still have a good shot at the award. His main threat at this point, Saquon Barkley has struggled (relatively speaking) recently and is by no means running away with the award. On top of this, players like Lamar Jackson and Mason Rudolph have not had the seasons they were projected to have up to this point. In short, Baker is still in the race. If he plays like he is capable of playing down the stretch, we could see a new statue in Heisman park in a couple of years.
New Heisman odds via @LVSuperBook: Barkley 3-2 Love 7-2 Mayfield 4-1 Rudolph 8-1 Jackson 12-1 Darnold 15-1 Barrett 20-1 Browning & Falk 30-1— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) October 8, 2017
Like Bane says to Bruce Wayne in their initial showdown in The Dark Knight Rises, “Peace has cost you your strength, victory has defeated you.” After this epic scene, Bruce Wayne gets sent into Bane’s prison and has to get back to basics to get his mojo back and escape the pit. He does push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups on a daily basis and works step by step to get back into fighting shape, taking nothing for granted.
The need to get back to basics also applies to the Sooner defense. Like Batman, with their victory and stellar defensive performance in Columbus, the Oklahoma defense perhaps grew complacent and started to think that they could just show up on Saturdays and win on talent alone. This is certainly not the case, as subpar performances against Baylor and Iowa State have shown.
Getting back to basics for the Sooner defense includes focusing on the fundamentals like tackling, gap discipline and knowing where to be in coverage on the back end. The defense has failed in all three phases and it has definitely shown.
On the defensive line, someone other than Obo has to step up and try to get consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback. Guys like D.J. Ward, Kenneth Mann, Mark Jackson, Neville Gallimore, Du’Vonta Lampkin, and Marquise Overton need to give Obo some relief. He is facing constant double-teams, but the other guys have not shown the ability to consistently step up and take advantage.
On top of this, Mike Stoops absolutely has to dial up more blitzes! As I mentioned last week, the lack of pressure makes the secondary look bad because they have to stay in coverage a lot longer. This has led to guys getting torched, as we saw for most of the second half on Saturday. To give Thomas — who is far from immune from blame in this situation — some relief, Mike Stoops might also want to consider putting Parnell Motley situations that would allow him to cover the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver. I know Motley is young, but he has proven through the first few games that he is at least deserving of a shot at the other team’s No. 1 guy. Opposing quarterbacks are beginning to look away from Motley and towards Jordan Thomas for good reason. They know who is doing a better job, and Mike Stoops should be able to figure that out as well.
As for the linebackers, guys like Caleb Kelly have to step up and help Kenneth Murray and Obo Okoronkwo. Aside from Murray’s late-game penalty yesterday that really hurt the defense, he played well. Obo did what Obo does best, even facing double teams for much of the game. Kelly has shown he has the talent to be a force for the defense but he has been off lately, missing tackles left and right and being out of position on a lot of plays. Again, this may fall more on the coaching of Mike Stoops, but Kelly has to change something so that he can help the other linebackers and live up to his potential.
Moving past Iowa State
Overall, the defense needs to change something drastically or this season could snowball into an 8-4 effort and a trip to a mid-tier bowl. I know that no one on this site wants that and would like to see at least some improvement on the defensive side of the ball. The Sooners have the talent to at least be an okay defense, but if they continue to play like they did yesterday, they will struggle to even be a top-50 defense and will continue to have trouble stopping people.
The loss to Iowa State could light a fire under the Sooners like the loss to Texas in 2015, or it could compound like the TCU and Kansas State losses in 2014. It really depends on how much the coaching staff is willing to change along with the leadership in the locker room. Guys like Obo and Steven Parker were named captains for a reason, and they need to do something different to fire up the defense so that the Sooners can get back in the CFP race. I know yesterday’s loss was embarrassing, frustrating, and infuriating for Sooner fans, but let’s keep in mind that we have battled back after losses like this before and ultimately learned a lot from them. The next couple of weeks will show us if the Sooners are going to call it a season or prepare for a trip to Atlanta in January. It could still go either way at this point.