FRISCO — Once again Oklahoma is the runaway favorite to win the Big 12 football race.
Emphasis on the run.
No one has a better running back tandem than the Sooners.
The probable starting quarterback runs much better than he throws.
And the Sooners’ head coach doesn’t mind that his team is making a run for a fourth straight league title and even made a pitch Monday that Oklahoma could well be in the mix for a second consecutive appearance in the College Football Playoff.
“I do think we have that capability,” second-year boss Lincoln Riley said. “Having it and getting there are two different things. But I do think the talent is there.”
So much for expecting any kind of dropoff in Norman. It’s been 18 years since they raised a championship banner there, but OU has reached the CFP semifinals twice, the only Big 12 team to do so. The Sooners also have 11 Big 12 titles, eight more than Texas, the next closest team.
OU is still the standard.
And Riley may well be the reason. At least, the tag-team reason after accepting the baton from the ultra successful Bob Stoops last June. Riley’s younger, obviously, but just as bold and brassy.
Riley, in fact, said OU “may be the most talented team we’ve had here in the last four years.”
Gulp, just said the rest of the league collectively. Apparently it doesn’t matter that OU has just six starters returning on each side of the ball and, for the first time since 1999, not a single defender who is preseason all-conference.
It’s good to be a Sooner these days because the biggest worry of the fan base just might be keeping the NFL’s hands off their coach. NFL scouts and evaluators beat a path to Riley’s door in the offseason, partly to gauge all of OU’s talent but also to pick the brain of the 34-year-old offensive guru.
Guru? Well, the Eagles used one of the same plays OU had dusted off with a throwback touchdown pass to its quarterback in the CFP semifinal game to win the Super Bowl.
Who cares that Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield has taken his antics and his accuracy to the NFL. Guess no one will miss consensus All-American tight end Mark Andrews, whose touchdown catch against Texas last fall may have been the most decisive play of the game. The Sooners have to replace a left tackle who also went to the NFL and a center. Sure, the defense was average at best and below average frequently, and it lost its top linebacker in Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.
Mere blips on the screen.
OU has a dynamic quarterback, five of seven returning offensive linemen, skilled wideouts in Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb and an emerging defense whose best players are underclassmen like sophomore linebacker Kenneth Murray — “the heart of our defense” — and cornerback Tre Norwood.
So this team might be better than a 12-2 team that came within a blink of an eye of a title game appearance and had four first-team All-Americans?
“I feel we can win all 15 games,” Murray said.
But OU will be different. You can take that to the bank, mainly because the Mayfield replacement just broke the bank as a top 10 pick in the major-league draft. Junior Kyler Murray has a way different skill set than his predecessor but is equally flashy. Riley describes redshirt sophomore Austin Kendall as a smooth pocket passer and a “sneaky good” athlete.
“Kyler’s not the quarterback yet,” said Riley, who does not want Kendall to transfer. “He’s going to have to fight like crazy to win it. Despite what people think outside our walls, there is a very real chance either guy could be the starter.”
If Murray doesn’t take the first snap, it would be the first upset of the season. He didn’t remain in school after signing for a $4.9 million bonus with the Oakland A’s to hold a clipboard, his lack of meaningful playing time notwithstanding. He’s thrown just 142 career passes, 21 in a crimson uniform.
He did start three games for Texas A&M before transferring, sitting out a season and starting just one for the Sooners last year. Even that carries an asterisk since Murray broke off a 68-yard romp to the 1 on the first play against West Virginia.
So look for dramatic change offensively from the Sooners with probably the conference’s best backfield tandem in Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon as well as the freakishly athletic Murray, a challenged passer who will be electric on draw plays and much more run-pass options.
“The backfield has always been a strength at OU,” Riley said, “and I hope it always will.”
And OU likes to mimic the better NFL teams.
“The two teams in the NFL that look the most like us, or several other college teams, were the two teams playing in the Super Bowl,” Riley told Sports Illustrated recently, “so when people are having success with it, that’s not going to slow down.”
Riley’s not backing down from anyone.
“I do think the talent is there,” Riley said, “but our leadership has to be so critical. Our young, talented players have to grow up in a hurry, and it’s fair to say, ahead of schedule. If this team reaches its potential, we can play with and beat anybody. I kind of like our team in general. It’s what are we going to do with it.”
Winning the Big 12 seems to be a good guess.