Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 21 Oklahoma
This time last year, Oklahoma still didn’t know who its starting quarterback was going to be, and we didn’t really know if the team was going to be all that good. Then Baker Mayfield seized the starting quarterback job, led an offense that scored 43.5 points per game, and the Sooners were in the playoff.
This year, Mayfield will have to play behind a young and inexperienced line, and the Sooners’ defense will be out three of last year’s four starting linebackers. But the Big 12 is very winnable, and a trip back to the playoff wouldn’t be surprising.
As is the case for the majority of programs vying for those four elusive playoff slots, the first four weeks will play a vital role in determining Oklahoma’s fate. The Sooners open against Houston, which has fashioned itself into a top-10 football program. Behind dynamic quarterback Greg Ward Jr., the Cougars will be searching for a statement non-conference victory to grant them a shot at becoming the first-ever Group of Five playoff selection—a win against Oklahoma in Week 1 would certainly fit the bill. After a Week 2 game against UL-Monroe, Oklahoma will have to deal with Ohio State, and will then head to Fort Worth to take on TCU.
It’s a rough way to start out a season, but there won’t be much complaining in Norman. Mayfield’s performance last season was as captivating as anything short of Christian McCaffrey’s magic show. He threw for 3,700 yards, 37 scores, and seven interceptions, all while managing a 68.1 completion percentage; he rushed for another 410 yards and found the end zone on the ground seven times. All the while, he lost his mind and bowled over teammates after scores and was outwardly one of the more enjoyable quarterbacks to watch command an offense all of last season. Now, he’s back, with the same dynamic backfield and a crop of new receivers to make stars out of.
Junior running back Samaje Perine had a down year last season compared to his freshman year—he still rushed for 1,349 yards and 16 touchdowns. Perine is 1,057 yards from owning the Sooners’s all-time rushing yards record, and given that he’s rushed for over 3,000 yards in the past two seasons alone, Perine will likely own the mark before his team heads to a bowl game in 2016. Coming in relief of Perine will be redshirt sophomore Joe Mixon. Mixon proved to be quite adept at running the football as the No. 2 back last season, rushing for 753 yards and seven touchdowns. However, he is still best known for being the Oklahoma recruit that punched a woman in the face, breaking multiple bones in the victim’s face, prior to enrollment. He enters this season in the midst of a lawsuit filed against him by Amelia Molitor.
In front of Mixon, Mayfield, and Perine, junior Jonathan Alvarez and sophomores Orlando Brown and Dru Samia will anchor the offensive line. The Sooners will need to find two suitable replacements at both guard slots and will have to do so with a crop of players with little game experience. However, this is Oklahoma and four- and five-star recruits are plentiful—the Sooners will plug the holes well enough to let their backfield cook.
Aside from the two open spots on the offensive line, replacing the production of wide receiver Sterling Shepard, now with the New York Giants, will be the team’s tallest task—Shepard finished his final year in Norman with 1,288 receiving yards and 11 scores. Senior Dede Westbrook seems to be the new No. 1 option for Mayfield. He was good for 743 yards and four touchdowns in 2015, but with Shepard and fellow NFL prospect Durron Neal gone, Westbrook, who posted an average of 16.2 yards per catch last year, will need help from the other receivers to keep the explosive Sooner offense rolling.
That help could come in the form of Penn State transfer Geno Lewis, or from freshman Mykel Jones, who drummed up a solid amount of hype from Stoops with his performance in the spring. None of these guys are proven game-breakers, but in offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley’s system, the new receivers will have their chance to shine.
Oklahoma fielded the top scoring defense in the Big 12 last year at 22.0 points per game. The Sooners lost a group of four all-conference players, including linebacker Eric Striker and defensive end Charles Tapper. Even so, they still return a defense that should be more than capable of holding opposing teams under 25 points. Given the firepower Oklahoma boasts on offense, the challenge for the defense will simply be to prevent the game from turning into a shootout.
Charles Walker is positioned to hold down the line at the defensive end position and could be one of the conference’s top rushers—last season, he was third on the team behind Striker and Tapper in both sacks and tackles for loss. Luckily for OU, senior Jordan Evans is back at the second level; unluckily, he will be the sole returning starter on the linebacker corps. Stepping up next to Evans will be Tay Evans and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. JUCO transfer Emmanuel Beal is another name to look out for at the position, as he’s made strides to secure a few first-team reps the past few weeks during fall practice. The secondary will be helmed by three returning starters, with junior Jordan Thomas at corner and Steven Parker and Ahmad Thomas at safety. The other corner spot will likely go to either sophomore P.J. Mbanasor and senior Dakota Austin. Whoever nabs it will help tighten up an already solid unit that ranked 34th in passing yards allowed per game last year.
Baker Mayfield wasn’t exactly unknown heading into 2015—he was a decent Texas Tech starter who made for Oklahoma due to disagreements with the Raiders’ coaching staff. Still, I would be lying if I said I thought he was capable of putting together the season he did last year. His performance earned him fourth place in the Heisman voting, an award he’ll be favored to challenge for this year, and now he heads into the season as the second-best quarterback in the nation (good as he is, Deshaun Watson is still somehow better.)
Mayfield is a freewheeling quarterback, the kind that make college football fun to watch, and his supreme ability to create masterpieces out of broken plays is what separates him from any other guy with a good arm. As a runner and an extender of passing plays, Mayfield is tough to bring down and even tougher to catch. He possesses the speed necessary to pull away from linemen and linebackers, and enough creativity to break the pocket and still keep his eyes downfield for a receiver breaking away. He’s also a fine dancer.
Mayfield lost his main weapon in Shepard, but with Westbrook out wide chewing up chunks of yardage with each catch and both running backs capable of 1,000-yard seasons, I have a feeling Mayfield will find a way to somehow make the offense hum like he did last year.
Yes, the Sooners can absolutely make the playoff. While some of it still has to be field-tested, Oklahoma has an abundance of talent at every position and some of the finest offensive weapons in the nation. They’ll have to make it through Houston and Ohio State without dropping both games, but the Sooners have the pieces in place to make that happen. The Big 12 isn’t exactly boiling over with top-10 teams this year; if the Sooners can keep using last year’s formula and avoid tripping in conference play, a second-straight trip to the playoff won’t be far off.
The best part, for Oklahoma fans, is Mayfield has two more seasons of eligibility thanks to a rule change from the Big 12 committee. Perine is only a junior, as is Mixon, and the offensive line is all sophomores and juniors. The defense has at least four seniors it will have to say goodbye to at the end of the year, but having seven returning starters on a unit is still a great position to be in. Point being, barring a massive collapse or NFL exodus, Oklahoma will have a legitimate shot at running the table again in 2017.
Bob Stoops: Great football coach, still a dick.
Sept. 3: Houston
Sept. 10: UL-Monroe
Sept. 17: Ohio State
Oct. 1: @ TCU
Oct. 8: Texas
Oct. 15: Kansas State
Oct. 22: @ Texas Tech
Oct. 29: Kansas
Nov. 3: @ Iowa State
Nov. 12: Baylor
Nov. 19: @ West Virginia
Dec. 3: Oklahoma State