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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Good news, bad news at midway point of 2020

The Sooners appear ready to ramp up their passing attack in the second half of the season.

NCAA Football: Texas at Oklahoma The Oklahoman-USA TODAY NETWORK

With just five games left to play, the Oklahoma Sooners have officially hit the halfway mark of a bizarre 2020 regular season. I have some good news and bad news to share about the remainder of the year.

For some reason, people always start with the good news and end with the bad. Who are these sadists? Here at CCM, we prefer to leave on a high note. So let’s start with three pieces of unpleasantness, followed by three bits of good news.

Bad news

OU needs help to win a sixth consecutive Big 12 title

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Iowa State Brian Powers-USA TODAY Sports

After the Sooners squeaked out a win over Texas in the Red River Showdown, oddsmakers quickly re-installed OU as the betting favorite to win the league. Nonetheless, anyone who has been following the conference race closely understands the hurdles between the Sooners and another trip to JerryWorld in December.

For starters, OU can’t lose another game in the regular season. My own personal power ratings project the Sooners to win a shade over four games out of the remaining five, with Bedlam and the trip to West Virginia the most likely candidates for losses. So while I’d happily lay odds on OU winning out, that is far from a given.

Additionally, Iowa State and Kansas State own the tiebreaker advantage over OU by virtue of head-to-head wins, so one of those two teams sustaining three losses is a must. One will take a loss when they play each other on November 21, but that alone would keep them both ahead of the Sooners in the Big 12 standings.

So it’s complicated, and we haven’t even gotten to the tiebreaker permutations yet.

The running game will only get marginally better

NCAA Football: Big 12 Championship-Baylor vs Oklahoma Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The productivity of OU’s ground attack has fallen off precipitously this season. The Sooners are averaging 3.66 yards per attempt, down nearly 40% from the 2019 mark of 5.95. Lincoln Riley’s lack of confidence in the running game has clearly hindered OU’s ability to manage offensive drives and salt away games in the fourth quarter.

There’s reason to believe things will get better in that regard in the next five games. Rhamondre Stevenson is an NFL-caliber running back, and he will probably return to action this weekend versus Texas Tech. The offensive line is coming together after a rough start to the year, with freshman tackle Anton Harrison and UCLA transfer Chris Murray at guard adding to the depth of the unit.

But Spencer Rattler only brings so much to the table as a running threat at quarterback – he’s clearly not in the mold of Kyler Murray or Jalen Hurts. That’s not a knock on Rattler, who may be the best passer ever to come through Norman. It’s simply a matter of recognizing that the identity of the offense has changed. Factor in that the talent in the backfield probably falls short of previous year, and it becomes clear that the ceiling on OU’s rushing attack has come down.

The secondary has disappointed

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season started, I wrote that OU’s secondary could turn into the best unit on the defense. It hasn’t turned out that way.

There have been some bright spots in the defensive backfield. Sophomore cornerback Jaden Davis is playing solid ball after flashing potential as a reserve in 2019. Redshirt freshman Woodi Washington is excelling in a reserve role after switching from safety to CB in the offseason.

The other positions in the secondary have been hit-or-miss. Senior CB Tre Brown has looked better in recent weeks, but he clearly has a reputation around the league for clutching and grabbing. The penalties are starting to add up. Speaking of which, nickel Brendan Radley-Hiles has accumulated more than his fair share of infractions again this season. OU’s safety duo of Pat Fields and Delarrin Turner-Yell have left something to be desired, too.

A few youngsters have started seeing the field more in recent weeks. Jeremiah Criddell showed some physicality out wide when he subbed in for Bookie at nickel against TCU. Freshmen D.J. Graham and Joshua Eaton also have seen some snaps in recent weeks. Don’t be surprised if other up-and-comers like freshman Bryson Washington see more time in the second half of the season.

Good news

Spencer Rattler is living up to the hype in many respects

OK, so the Next Great OU Quarterback made some costly mistakes in his first few starts. And, yes, Riley had to put him in timeout against Texas.

The Sooners haven’t lived through the growing pains with a young QB in a long time, so it’s easy to forget these things happen. Ever since the benching versus UT, however, Rattler has played more responsible football. After committing a total of six turnovers against KSU, ISU and the Longhorns, Rattler hasn’t given the ball away once in a stretch covering six quarters and four overtime periods.

Meanwhile, the strength and precision of Rattler’s right arm was never in doubt, but some of his throws this year have still managed to dazzle. OU fans need to prepare for lots of speculation about Rattler’s NFL future next season.

Calvin Thibodeaux and Jamar Cain can coach

With Neville Gallimore off to the NFL and Ronnie Perkins suspended, no one would have believed me prior to the season if I told them that OU’s defensive front would be the strength of the team. But five games into the season, it’s a fact. Thibodeaux and Cain deserve plenty of credit for that.

Syndication: Phoenix Tom Tingle/The Republic via Imagn Content Services, LLC

In particular, Cain has come through in a big way in his first year as part of the OU staff. Nik Bonitto and Jon-Michael Terry have both taken major steps forward at the JACK position, with Bonitto becoming an especially effective pass rusher. In Perkins’ absence at defensive end, Cain has overseen the development of Isaiah Thomas from afterthought to pro prospect.

Thibodeaux was dealt a similar blow before the season when disruptive defensive tackle Jalen Redmond opted out of the 2020 campaign. Junior college transfers Perrion Winfrey and Josh Ellison are helping make up for Redmond’s absence in the meantime. Winfrey’s talent was undeniable, but under Thibodeaux’s tutelage, Ellison became a valuable contributor on the interior far sooner than expected.

Frankly, you could extend the praise for Thibodeaux and Cain to the entire staff on defense. Tough to complain about any of Riley’s hires on that side of the ball since the end of the 2018 season.

OU’s passing game is preparing for liftoff

Rattler has the goods from a talent standpoint. What will take OU’s aerial attack to the next level is his growing rapport with OU’s emerging cast of receivers.

True freshman Marvin Mims is already leading the team in receptions (19), receiving yards (328) and touchdown catches (six). Tight end Austin Stogner is tied for first on the team in receptions at 19. Theo Wease has set a career high in yards in each of the last two games.

The Sooners have some solid receiving options behind the stars, including veteran Charleston Rambo and Red River hero Drake Stoops. There’s also H-back Jeremiah Hall, who provides a security blanket for Rattler in the red zone.

Importantly, the receiving corps is on the verge of getting a talent infusion in the coming weeks. Trejan Bridges will likely make his 2020 debut on Saturday versus Texas Tech. His classmate Jadon Haselwood may be just a week or two away from returning from an offseason knee injury. Even if Rattler needs a little extra time to get comfortable with Bridges and Haselwood, their services are close to a luxury at this point.

So expect the OU offense in the team’s remaining games to come closer to recent standards of explosiveness through the air.