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Oklahoma Sooners Football: The Sooners appear equipped to make a real run at glory in 2017

Oklahoma has had some really good teams since its last appearance in a national championship game, but this one looks like an actual contender.

Oklahoma v Ohio State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Last week, Bleacher Report’s Brandon Sneed released a longform article called “The Coach of the Future,” calling Lincoln Riley “the undisputed wunderkind of football” and quoting a player who called Riley a “football genius.”

I don’t know about you, but I get nervous when I see stuff like that. I mean sure, I’ve been riding the Lincoln Riley bandwagon as hard as anyone. My own articles have called Riley “potential[ly] … OU’s best recruiter ever” and the “biggest name” on the Bob Stoops coaching tree. But I write for a website called Crimson & Cream Machine — it’s sort of my duty to keep the hype machine churning. A football genius, though? That’s the kind of line that’ll come back to bite more often than not.

And yet after Saturday’s display it hardly feels inaccurate. A first-year head coach in his second ever game really did just beat a three-time national champion on his home field in front of 100,000-plus screaming fans, and convincingly at that. And yeah, that was the toughest game on the schedule (on paper at least).

As a man who approaches life and football with cautious optimism, it was hard for me to pick the Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday night. But Lincoln Riley has shown me, and the nation, that he’s not just the coach of the future — he’s the coach of right now. And Oklahoma might be the team of right now, too.

Last year during OU games, I was usually typing up play-by-play tweets or working on a “gamer,” or recap. But this season my hands are free, which made them available to throw things when OU couldn’t score in the first half.

My sentiments exactly, Josh.

It’s easy to forget now — goodness knows I want to — but between bad snaps, fumbles and miscues, Oklahoma was not living up to the moment for most of the first 30. The notable exception? Mike Stoops’s unit, a much-maligned defense that no one thought could contain Ohio State’s blue-chip skill players.

Though freshman running back J.K. Dobbins was able to gash the Sooners a bit in the third quarter, for the most part Oklahoma was able to do exactly that: contain. Obo Okoronkwo was disruptive, Parnell Motley was as advertised, Emmanuel Beal was a leader and Kenneth Murray was prepared. Will Johnson has finally found a role and Caleb Kelly has found several. In short, the OU defense looks capable of actually hanging with the best offenses in the nation. What a difference a year can make.

The defense will need to clean up a few things to achieve truly elite territory, of course. When the Buckeyes were able to get outside with speed, with Dobbins or J.T. Barrett, OU often whiffed its first tackle while most defenders were engaged in blocks. Also, OU often struggled to get a push up the middle from the interior linemen. And more than once the Sooners lost contain on the edge, allowing Barrett a free dozen yards or so.

But the OU secondary severely limited the Ohio State passing attack, and the defense was able to keep Dobbins and Barrett in check for quarters at a time. It seemed like there were four white shirts in on every tackle — the Sooners have upgraded their athleticism since last season and it’s already paying off. Oklahoma will play more potent offenses this year, but limiting any No. 2 school to 16 points is a staggering victory on the road.

It’s hard to overstate just how right things went for the OU offense, especially in the second half when they quit putting the ball on the ground. Abdul Adams’s night effectively ended after his early drive-ending fumble, but that allowed true freshman Trey Sermon (who I accidentally called Marcelias Sutton in my postgame Facebook Live, so my apologies) to have his breakout performance. Sermon may be the featured back for the rest of the season after that display. He wasn’t overwhelming, but he did keep the Buckeyes honest — which was all Riley needed to unleash havoc in the second half.

#We2Deep has always felt like a strange motto for OU. If anything, the Sooners of recent years have seemed top-heavy, relying on a handful of elite guys and a good offensive line to protect the guys on the margins. This year, though, the Sooners will rely on more players who can do more things, making #We2Deep a fitting explanation for Saturday’s carnage.

Dimitri Flowers, of course, is already a fan favorite in Oklahoma. But he introduced himself to the world on Saturday night with his Swiss Army knife of skills that made him not only an effective blocker on every down but also the team’s leading receiver on the night. It’s tough for defenses to account for Flowers when he slips into the backfield after engaging at the line, but they’ll ignore him at their own peril this season.

Other than Mark Andrews (get well very soon), the list of OU receptions is littered with new faces that will be familiar names soon. Kentucky grad transfer Jeff Badet showed why he’s this year’s answer to Dede Westbrook — he’s not going to catch as many 60-yard bombs, though those will come, but the Sooners utilized him creatively and he came up with some huge catches to save drives for OU, recovering nicely from an early fumble. CeeDee Lamb, meanwhile, is looking more and more each week like Oklahoma’s next great wide receiver.

Now that Sermon has shown he can play in the passing game too, there are simply too many weapons and options on the field for OU’s offense not to be successful. It’s a question of execution now.

I’m neglecting one very important name, of course, and he’s the main reason I think the 2017 Sooners have a chance to go all the way. For most mortals, playing for revenge is a sure-fire way to get your butt kicked. For Baker Mayfield, it’s the key to a career game.

Just when you think Mayfield can’t get any better, he turns in a three-touchdown, 386-yard performance like that on a national stage in enemy territory. His football IQ is like one of those expanding brain memes — two years ago, he was playing like he wanted to be Johnny Manziel. Now Baker is a polished pocket quarterback with impeccable timing, accuracy and decision-making — and, oh yeah, he can also improvise better than anyone in major college football. What are defenses supposed to do?

Not to mention he does it with an off-the-charts swag factor that makes him likable despite — or maybe because of? — all the flag-plating and crowd-hushing. He’s exactly the kind of leader OU will need if it hopes to play and beat a final boss like Alabama at the end of this season. And for the first time in a while, I can say with confidence that the Sooners look capable of that.

Usually when a legendary head coach retires, near-term championship hopes retire with him. But Stoops may have foreseen that OU’s unique combination of veteran leadership, new talent and coaching continuity would make this team different.

Or maybe he just wanted to retire. Retirement suits him.

Either way, Riley now has the inside track on a CFP appearance and, just maybe, the first rookie-season national title since Miami’s Larry Coker in 2001. Such first-year success would be enormous for the present and future of the program — and goodness knows it would be a bit of a victory in its own right to just to win the Big 12 for the third year in a row and make the CFP.

But it’s obvious after Saturday that this team has a higher ceiling than a CFP berth. Just getting to the Playoff means little to someone like Baker, whose bravado couldn’t carry Oklahoma past a surging Clemson team two years ago. But this OU team is experienced where it counts, and its youthful contingent will respond to its youthful head coach and energetic QB.

The Sooners have a long way to go, but if they can throttle Ohio State in Columbus, who’s better than they are? Maybe Alabama. Maybe Clemson. Maybe no one. The time is now.