The last time the Oklahoma Sooners traveled to Waco, they did so as an underdog. The Baylor Bears were 8-0 and the No. 4-ranked team in the country. OU was 8-1 and ranked No. 12. A sold out crowd and the College GameDay crew battled through the rain and cold to watch one of the most anticipated college football matchups of the year. Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham was making his second career start and his first in front of the home fans at McLane stadium. The game was within three points with under five minutes remaining before Oklahoma pulled away for a 44-34 victory.
That night was less than two years ago, but it feels like an eternity for Baylor fans who have watched their team fall from National Championship contenders to a team just hoping to win one game this season.
The vibe surrounding this Saturday’s matchup in Waco will have a much different feel than the last time around. Head Coach Matt Rhule is still searching for that elusive first victory at Baylor. On the opposite sideline, OU’s Lincoln Riley has still yet to face the first defeat of his young career as a head coach. The coaching situation is one of many aspects of this game worth keeping an eye on. Here are some more story lines to watch for this Saturday.
Date: Saturday, September 23rd
Time & TV: 5:30 CT on FS1
Spread: OU -27.5
The Baker Mayfield Heisman train is picking up steam
Get on board or get run over, folks. Mayfield has looked unstoppable through the first three games of the season and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. He has already thrown for over 1,000 yards and 10 TDs without throwing a single interception. Sooner fans have been screaming for years that Baker is the best quarterback in the country and now Las Vegas agrees. Bovada now has Baker as the favorite to win the Heisman following Lamar Jackson’s lackluster performance against Clemson. Baker’s odds currently sit at +275. The second best odds? Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph at +450.
Can the Sooners start strong?
Lincoln Riley’s squad has not started any of its three games particularly well. The defense allowed touchdowns on the opening drive against UTEP and Tulane, and the offense tallied just three points in the first half against Ohio State. That is a habit that I’m sure Riley hopes his team can break this weekend. Baylor has several home run hitters on offense who are capable of punishing OU’s defense if they come out sleepwalking. OU has the far superior team on paper, but they don’t want to let Baylor hang around and linger within striking distance in the second half.
CeeDee Lamb has a chip on his shoulder
Revenge is a dish best serve cold ❄️ pic.twitter.com/2E5rBkdpX1— CeDarian Lamb (@_CeeDeeThree) September 17, 2017
That tweet pretty much says it all. Lamb was not happy after being ejected on a very questionable targeting call in the second quarter of last week’s win over Tulane. He was having the best game of his young career before the ejection with 4 catches for 131 yards and 2 TDs in the first half. He was just 10 yards away from breaking Ryan Broyles’ single-game school record for receiving yards by a freshman before his day ended early on what appeared, to most, to be a clean hit. Lamb has already proven that he’s a legitimate threat to break off a huge play at any moment, and you can bet he will be hungry to pick up where he left off last Saturday.
Baylor has four starters (and six players overall) returning from injury
Running back Terence Williams, cornerback Grayland Arnold, safety Taion Sells and tight end Jordan Feuerbacher are all available to play this weekend after missing all or most of the season up to this point. Williams led the Bears with 1,048 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns last season, and his return should be a huge boost to a running back group that combined for just 48 yards last week against Duke. Baylor has had to resort to playing wide receiver Blake Lynch at cornerback the last few weeks, so Arnold and Sells will provide some much needed depth for the Bears’ secondary.
Pass rush has been a bright spot for Bears
The list of Baylor’s defensive deficiencies is a long one. They’ve allowed a whopping 466 rushing yards in their last two games, and Liberty’s Stephen Calvert picked them apart for 447 yards through the air in the season opener. Through it all, Baylor’s pass rush has been a (filler metaphor). The Bears’ 28 tackles for loss ranks second best in the nation, and sophomore Clay Johnston tallied a team-high 13 tackles against Duke including three tackles for loss and a sack. The battle between Oklahoma’s offensive line and Baylor’s front seven will be one of the most intriguing matchups to watch on Saturday.
Baylor is still searching for stability at quarterback
You’re only as good as your signal caller in the Big 12, and Baylor’s quarterback play has been among the worst in the nation. That may actually be putting it lightly. Arizona transfer Anu Solomon started the first two games of the season, but a concussion brought sophomore Zach Smith, who started the final four games of last season after Seth Russell suffered a season-ending ankle injury, into the cockpit. Smith has completed just 36.1% of his passes this season. Solomon has completed 43.6%. Both QBs rank in the bottom five in FBS in that category, with Smith currently boasting the worst completion rate in the country. The two have combined to throw seven touchdowns and six interceptions through three games. That simply won’t be good enough to win games in the Big 12.
Oklahoma has the No. 7 pass defense in the country, and if Baylor’s quarterback play doesn’t take a giant step forward from where it’s been the past three weeks, the Bears will have a very tough time keeping this game competitive. Smith will once again get the start, but Solomon will not be available as he is battling a concussion suffered in week two. That means that true freshman Charlie Brewer will have to burn his redshirt and play if Smith goes down. Matt Rhule obviously does not want to do that, but he doesn’t have much choice with only two healthy scholarship QBs available.
I simply don’t see a way that Baylor even keeps this one close. Baker Mayfield might throw for 500 yards in the first half. This one could get ugly in a hurry, especially if Zach Smith doesn’t take a massive step forward from what we’ve seen so far. I firmly believe that Matt Rhule will bring Baylor back to national prominence, but it’s not going to happen this weekend.
Oklahoma 49, Baylor 17