NORMAN — No more speculation. No more guessing. No more predictions.
It’s game week. Football is here.
For Oklahoma, it’s all about Houston.
And that means starting fast, being physical and figuring out their identity.
This isn’t Akron. And this isn’t 2015.
There is no warm-up. No adjustment period. The Sooners must know who they are and what they want to do come kickoff on Saturday at NRG Stadium.
“Well, we better,” said offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. “We better.”
Bob Stoops was asked if a team can establish an offensive identity in August. But for this OU team, a better question might be if the Sooners can determine who they are starting way back in January workouts.
“I don’t know,” Stoops said. “You have a good idea of establishing an identity going in, but you know, it has to happen. You have to get out there and see it come to fruition, and that only comes with games. We’ll sure try to have a strong one going into that last week going into game week.”
Houston is no defensive monster. The Cougars ranked 53rd nationally in total defense last season and return five starters from that squad.
But OU players know all too well that this is not last season. In fact, they’ve been addressing that ever since Clemson dominated both lines of scrimmage in the Orange Bowl.
“Yeah, we don’t really like to think about that game too much, but it’s something that we don’t ever want to repeat,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “It’s something we’ve thought about. We definitely want to be the more physical team, and we felt we got out-physicaled last year. That’s something we brought into our summer, and so this camp (has been) more physical. I think we’re definitely gonna be ready and motivated and take things from that game and bring them into this year.”
Clemson rushed for 312 yards against the Sooner defense (5.4 yards per carry), while OU managed just 67 yards on the ground (just 2.0 yards per carry). No team can compete for a championship with that kind of disparity in the trenches.
Clemson was by far the more physical team, and that fact didn’t sit well in Norman these past eight months. Strength coach Jerry Schmidt got involved and stepped up the offseason focus.
“There’s definitely things that coach Smitty did that were different,” Andrews said. “But just the intensity of the workouts were different. They were way harder this year than ever have been. I think that’s part of him creating that mentality of being physical and getting your nose dirty and doing what you have to do.”
“Definitely more physical,” said tackle Orlando Brown. “As a team, we’ve, I guess you could say, dedicated ourselves to being the most physical team in the country.”
And yet, this Saturday is about much more than the Sooners’ miserable performance in Miami.
The tenor of this season opener and OU’s offensive identity has roots in last year’s season opener — the first five games of the 2015 season, actually.
With a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback and a retooled offensive line, OU averaged just 144 rushing yards per game — 286 of which came against a Tulsa defense that ranked among the worst in the country. In that stretch, the Sooners averaged a measly 3.6 yards per carry. That included a 33-carry, 100-yard effort against Akron. But the run game horrors peaked in the Cotton Bowl, when Texas held OU to just 67 yards on 37 carries.
“We played better as we went on,” Riley said. “Part of that, it was Year 1 and it was just a progression of it. We knew what our identity was the entire way. We just weren’t great at it, yet. It was a progression, and kind of around midseason we started playing better and got some confidence and we able to take up from there.”
OU averaged 268.8 rushing yards per game over the final seven regular season games, and the Oklahoma offense had found its identity — and yeah, got pretty great at it.
That’s why, with No. 15-ranked Houston up first and No. 6 Ohio State coming to Memorial Stadium two weeks later, followed by a road trip to No. 13 TCU and the annual grudge match with Texas, Riley and his offense can’t afford to work out the kinks.
“There’s certainly an expectation we have, to play better,” Riley said. “I think our guys have a strong understanding if we don’t, we’re going to be in trouble. We play some real good teams in the beginning. We have to be very good, very early.”
Ultimately, this OU season will be judged on what the team prior to Saturday. To that end, they sound confident.
“Not only practice, but the summer workouts were a little bit different, too, just because we realize we have to be ready from the get-go,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “The first game is against a very good opponent and our season, the front part of it is very loaded up.
“We have been preparing to be ready for the season at the very beginning. We can’t have any rust to knock off. We have to go in ready to play and that’s how we’re treating camp right now. We know who we have Sept. 3, but at the same time, it’s about working on us and getting better as a team.”