Jalen Hurts #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide snaps the ball during the 2016 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome on December 31, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Football

Our 11th annual Top 25 countdown: Same lofty goals, and CFP questions, for No. 4 Oklahoma

Alabama transplant Jalen Hurts becomes OU's latest Heisman Trophy hopeful. Speaking of hopeful, OU wants to solve its CFP issues.

Posted July 24th, 2019

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We’re 36 days away from the 2019 season opener, but it’s never too early to talk college football. We continue with our 11th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25 as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists ranked first, second, eighth and 13th in our 2018 poll.

Our No. 4 team: Oklahoma

The Sooners’ best-case scenario:  Not many schools can crow about getting a Heisman-caliber quarterback as a transfer after watching two previous quarterbacks win the award. But here comes Jalen Hurts, the transfer from Alabama. All he really needs to do is distribute the ball to stars CeeDee Lamb, Trey Sermon and Grant Calcaterra. Head coach Lincoln Riley is 24-4 in two seasons with two Big 12 titles. OU should be a title contender once again.

And their worst-case scenario: Worst case? OU won the league last year with an atrocious defense. The Sooners allowed a league-high 33.3 points per game. “We definitely expect our defense to be better. I don’t think there is any doubt,” Riley said at Big 12 media days. Even if Hurts gets injured, the Sooners have enough firepower to keep going. Two losses would leave OU fans shocked.

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Last year, Oklahoma was No. 8 on our preseason poll.

Inside the Sooners

Coach: Lincoln Riley (3rd year, 24-4 overall)

2018:  12-2, 8-1 in the Big 12 (lost to Alabama in the CFP semifinals). The Sooners have a pair of Big 12 titles but are 0-2 in bowl games so far under Riley.

Returning starters: 4 offense, 8 defense

Shoes to fill: QB Kyler Murray (Big 12 offensive player of the year, Heisman Trophy winner, No. 1 pick of the NFL draft); QB Austin Kendall (transferred to West Virginia); WR Marquise Brown (1,318 yards, 10 TDs); K/P Austin Seibert (Big 12 special teams player of the year)

Spring cleaning: Perhaps the biggest news came at media days when Riley confirmed that RB Kennedy Brooks had been reinstated to the team after a Title IX investigation on campus. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards and scored 12 touchdowns last season. OU also hired a new defensive coordinator; Alex Grinch spent last season at Ohio State. Stabilizing the defense is a key issue. Until last season, OU hadn’t allowed more than 30 points per game this decade.

Texas running back Tre Watson (5) battles for more yardage against Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Kenneth Murray (9) in the first quarter during an NCAA college football game at the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas Texas on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Returning leaders

PASSING: Tanner Mordecai (3rd on team), 2-4-37 yards

RUSHING: Kennedy Brooks (1st), 119-1,056-12; Trey Sermon (3rd), 164-947-13

RECEIVING: CeeDee Lamb (2nd), 65-1,158-11; TE Grant Calcaterra (3rd), 26-396-6; Lee Morris (4th), 21-457-8

TACKLES: LB Kenneth Murray (1st), 155

SACKS: DL Ronnie Perkins (1st), 5.0; LB Kenneth Murray (T-2nd), 4.0

INTERCEPTIONS: CB Parnell Motley (1st), 3

Returning All-Big 12 (10)

Offense: RB Kennedy Brooks (hon. mention), OL Creed Humphrey (hon. mention), WR CeeDee Lamb (hon. mention), RB Trey Sermon (hon. mention)

Defense: LB Kenneth Murray (2nd team), CB Tre Brown (hon. mention), DL Neville Gallimore (hon. mention), DL Kenneth Mann (hon. mention), CB Parnell Motley (hon. mention)

Special teams: RET Tre Brown (2nd)

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley yells after the team’s 59-56 win over West Virginia during an NCAA college football game in Morgantown, W.Va., Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. Oklahoma earned a spot in the Big 12 championship game. (Ian Maule/Tulsa World via AP)

FYI

Bullies of the Big 12: This season marks OU’s 125th year of football. It’s been a tremendous run lately, as OU has won four straight Big 12 titles. The Sooners have won more Big 12 titles over the last 20 years (12) than they have lost home games (10), a run of excellence that’s unmatched in the Big 12. Texas, by contrast, has won only three Big 12 titles since the conference began in 1996.

Friendly skies: The way to crush OU’s defense last year was through the air. Texas had 501 passing yards. Oklahoma State piled up 640 and West Virginia had a whopping 704 yards in a game that was the height of Big 12 offensive insanity. Cornerbacks Tre Brown and Tre Norwood return along with safety Delarrin Turner-Yell. OU’s pass defense, which ranked last in the Big 12, has nowhere to go but up.

High expectations: This season is all about managing expectations. The schedule looks easy. OU plays South Dakota, the school’s first FCS opponent since 2012. Then comes the road trip to UCLA — OU has won 20 straight true road games. The Sooners are likely to be favored in all 12 regular-season games, including their matchup with Texas. So can Hurts push OU through the regular season and back to the CFP?

2018 national stat rankings

Scoring: 1st (48.4 ppg)

Total offense: 1st (570.3 ypg)

Passing: 7th (322.9 ypg)

Rushing: 11th (247.4 ypg)

Red zone offense: 8th

Time of possession: 89th (28:58)

Scoring defense: 101st (33.3 ppg)

Total defense: 114th (453.8 ypg)

Pass defense: 129th (294.0 ypg)

Rush defense: 59th (159.8 ypg)

Red zone defense: 126th

Turnover margin: 81st

The schedule

DATEOPPONENTLAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)
Aug. 31Houston
Sept. 7South Dakota
Sept. 14at UCLAW, 49-21
Sept. 28Texas Tech*W, 51-46
Oct. 5at Kansas*W, 55-40
Oct. 12Texas* (Dallas)L, 48-45
Oct. 19West Virginia*W, 59-56
Oct. 26at Kansas State*W, 51-14
Nov. 9Iowa State*W, 37-27
Nov. 16at Baylor*W, 66-33
Nov. 23TCU*W, 52-27
Nov. 30at Oklahoma State*W, 48-47
* Big 12 game (Oklahoma beat Texas 39-27 in the Big 12 title game)

The key game? Oct. 12, Texas (Cotton Bowl). Oklahoma travels to face UCLA on Sept. 14, but it doesn’t look like the Sooners will get tested until facing the Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl. That game will determine the season’s second-half storylines. The last five regular-season matchups have been decided by seven points or less.

The last 5 years

YearW-L/Conf.RankBowl
20148-5 / 5-44th / —Russell Athletic Bowl, L
201511-2 / 8-119th / 5thCFP semifinals, L
201611-2 / 9-03rd / 5thSugar Bowl, W
201712-2 / 7-17th / 3rdCFP semifinals, L
201812-2 / 8-17th / 4thCFP semifinals, L
Total54-13 / 37-75 bowl games (1-4)
Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final ranking.

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Stanford will need its experienced defense to lead the way early

No. 24: Can Nebraska carry its end-of-2018 momentum into 2019?

No. 23: Was 2018 a one-time thing, or is Syracuse back as a program?

No. 22: A run to last year’s Big Ten title game has Northwestern wanting more

No. 21: Mike Leach hopes Clemson’s quarterback loss is Washington State’s gain

No. 20: With no proven quarterback, Wisconsin will ride the legs of Jonathan Taylor

No. 19: With Jarret Stidham in the NFL, Auburn must choose a freshman quarterback

No. 18: Army might end up throwing a real wrench into the CFP’s plans this year

No. 17: Iowa State hopes to keep its recent rise moving full steam ahead

No. 16: Central Florida is trying to overcome a pair of serious quarterback injuries

No. 15: Utah casts its eyes on winning the Pac-12 title this year

No. 14: Penn State’s baromoter? Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State (again)

No. 13: Defense may determine Washington’s chances at another Pac-12 title

No. 12: Texas A&M must navigate a scheduled peppered with heavyweights

No. 11: Is Jim Harbaugh’s coaching seat at Michigan getting hotter?

No. 10: If Feleipe Franks continues his rise, Florida can make some noise in the SEC

No. 9: Texas is counting on Ehlinger — Sugar Bowl MVP, coverboy, potential Heisman candidate

No. 8: Oregon’s Justin Herbert may end up as the Ducks’ career passing leader

No. 7: With its schedule, Notre Dame has the chance to impress the CFP selection folks

No. 6: As usual, LSU’s chances go hand in hand with nagivating that SEC slate

No. 5: Is Ryan Day ready to step into Urban Meyer’s shoes at Ohio State?

No. 4: Oklahoma

Our Top 25, by conferences

6 schools:

Big Ten — No. 5 Ohio State, No. 11 Michigan, No. 14 Penn State, No. 20 Wisconsin, No. 22 Northwestern, No. 24 Nebraska

5 schools:

Pac-12 — No. 8 Oregon, No. 13 Washington, No. 15 Utah, No. 21 Washington State, No. 25 Stanford

4 schools:

SEC — No. 6 LSU, No. 10 Florida, No. 12 Texas A&M, No. 19 Auburn

3 schools:

Big 12 — No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 9 Texas, No. 17 Iowa State

2 schools:

Independents — No. 7 Notre Dame, No. 18 Army

1 school:

AAC — No. 16 Central Florida

ACC — No. 23 Syracuse

Coming tomorrow: Our No. 3 team

Want a hint?

This school lost three games last year. One of them was to Texas.

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