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Oklahoma Sooners Football vs. UCLA: Avoiding the huge upset

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In 2017, Oklahoma lost to Iowa State as a 30-point favorite. There are plenty of ways to avoid that kind of thing, and Seth takes a look at some of them.

Iowa State v Oklahoma Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

The Oklahoma Sooners are likely going to be favored in every game they play this year, and in most cases they’ll be overwhelming favorites. If the games were played on paper, Oklahoma would go undefeated quite often, but as we all know, the games are played on the field, and when two teams line up against each other, anything can happen.

To be clear, Oklahoma fans have every right to be confident this week, and I’m not worried about the UCLA Bruins this week. But for Oklahoma, it seems like once a season (and sometimes more than once), the team doesn’t appear ready to play. Whether it’s a product of not taking an opponent seriously, looking ahead to a marquee game or whatever else, there seems to be at least one shockingly unexpected result every season that blemishes the record and leaves fans stunned.

And lately, it’s seemed as though those games have been more likely to happen in Norman. Oklahoma has won its last 16 true road games (that doesn’t include the UH game at NRG Stadium) going back to 2014, and in that same span has lost four home games.

On any given Saturday, a top-ranked team can lay an egg against an opponent with less talent. That’s why there are such things as upsets in sports. They happen all the time, especially in the parity-filled world of college football. So when the ball isn’t bouncing their way, or when the energy isn’t where it needs to be, what are some factors that can help the Sooners minimize those sub-par performances that have seen them stumble against lesser competition?

Coaching

In any game, coaching is going to be a large part of the battle. Going back to the Iowa State game in 2017, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was unable to align his defense to counter the Cyclones’ combination of screen passes and QB-runs with two-way threat Joel Lanning. For all the major criticisms about Stoops’ defenses, one of the most glaring has been his inability to adjust on the fly. Going forward, if Oklahoma wants to avoid another ISU debacle, Stoops will have to recognize what’s working for the opposition and adjust accordingly.

Now as a whole, the coaching staff leads the team in the fight against complacency, starting at the top with Lincoln Riley. His approach going into games that outsiders don’t immediately perceive as a threat is crucial to the team’s performance. He has to be consistent with how he game plans, and through a relatively small sample size the 35-year-old has done well in this area.

The further down the coaching totem pole you go, the more hands-on the assistants are with the players, generally speaking. In those positions, the pulse of a particular unit and even individual players can be recognized during the week before a potential ‘trap game’ is played. Guys like Cale Gundy, Ruffin McNeill and Tim Kish have been around football for a long time, and the players need these seasoned vets to keep them playing at a high level should their energy ever wane.

Now the real challenge comes with how Riley instills motivation in the team. The players know coach speak when they hear it, and praising a 30-point underdog during a press conference often includes a heavy dose of that.

For the players in these situations, the best motivation is to find a personal challenge, and to focus on being better than the last time they took the field. The greatest opponent is often who’s reflected in the mirror, so the task for the coaches is to drive home the message that the team needs to play up to their own level and not down to whatever’s on paper.

Team leaders

While coaches lead during the week and on the sidelines, but the greatest leaders for the team are between the white lines. Fortunately for the Sooners, there are plenty of voices to heed and examples to follow in 2018.

That starts with the team captains. Rodney Anderson, Kenneth Mann, Kenneth Murray, Ben Powers and Austin Siebert were voted for by their peers, but those leaders ought to extend to all veteran presences on the field. This team will only go as far as its leaders carry them, so it’ll be up to them to make sure the rest of the team matches their energy and effort.

Fast Start

Here’s an example of a fast start:

In the past, it’s been obvious judging by the early stages of the game when Oklahoma was about to struggle with an opponent it definitely shouldn’t.

Now sure, going back to last season, when Oklahoma was favored by 30-something points over Iowa State, the beginning of the game initially reflected that spread as the Sooners jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead. Even after losing a few keys players as the game progressed, the rest of the team had no business messing around and losing that game. Some of the failures began at the coaching level, but the players who were supposed to lead are also in-part responsible for historically bad result.

The point being, the Sooners did what they should have done to start the game, but how they finished cost them in the win/loss column. Again, moving forward, the team leaders will dictate this, and if or when a player goes down, the next guy has to be ready.

Discipline

I like the effort here, but you have to know when to pull up, K-9. That’s obviously easier said than done in the context of a fast-paced game, but discipline is key.

Playing sound, fundamental football might sound like a cliché, but there’s a reason why teams that take care of the ball, don’t hurt themselves with penalties and trust in their coaching have successful campaigns.

With turnovers, both taking care of the ball and taking advantage of the opponent’s mistakes is something Oklahoma has been inconsistent with in recent years. While Baker Mayfield rarely threw interceptions, the Sooners’ defense rarely took the ball away. And as far as penalties go, they are not all created equal. A false start on 4th and 8 when you’re already punting is obviously less harmful than lining up offsides on 3rd and 4.

For the more outmatched teams on Oklahoma’s schedule, giving them extra possession or extended drives can absolutely be the difference in a close ball game. The longer those teams stay in the game, the higher those players’ confidence becomes. It’s a real phenomenon, and every season it gets a lot of good teams beat.

The Bottom Line

Oklahoma should win every game on its schedule, with the operative word being should. The most dangerous opponents are often the ones you’re not worried about. The Sooners made a statement to open the season against what could still turn out to be a very solid FAU squad, and they’ll have another chance to prove their commitment to the details with the reeling UCLA Bruins coming to town this Saturday.

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