ATLANTA — The future of Oklahoma football comes down to this.
The Sooners go into their Peach Bowl showdown against No. 1-ranked LSU Saturday with something they didn’t have in their previous two College Football Playoff appearances: both an offense and a defense.
This Oklahoma team is capable of playing complementary football.
Does that translate to the Sooners’ first win in the CFP? Maybe, maybe not. OU (12-1) is a 13 ½-point underdog to the Tigers (13-0).
But jumping into the postseason with a defense — a defense that will tackle, a defense that will cover, a defense that will rush the passer — is uncharted territory in the Lincoln Riley era.
“Think about this,” said LSU coach Ed Orgeron. “These guys have only given 24 points a game. They’re very solid, know what they’re doing, very quick.”
“When you watch them on tape, they definitely pop,” said Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow. “They’re fast all over the field. And their scheme is really effective.”
“This might be the fastest defense we face,” said LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger. “They can run.”
Can you imagine such effusive praise heaped upon the Sooners at any point in the last two postseasons?
In the 2017 Rose Bowl and the 2018 Orange Bowl, Oklahoma yielded 99 points. In losses to Georgia and Alabama, OU’s defense was helpless as the opponent reeled off 24 and 28 unanswered points. Georgia (a 54-48 overtime loss) amassed 527 yards on just 63 plays. Alabama (a 45-34 loss) coasted to 471 yards on 69 plays.
“You’ve got to understand, you’re playing in the playoff,” Riley said. “Every team is going to have the other team make runs against them. You’ve got to be able to handle those big momentum swings.”
In the past two playoff trips, OU couldn’t handle those swings. The pressure on Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Riley’s offenses in those games was immense. One turnover, one punt, one three-and-out, one missed field goal and the Bulldogs or Crimson Tide were changing the scoreboard.
This Sooner defense at least gives Jalen Hurts and the offense some margin for error. Hurts isn’t perfect, and with a defense backing him up — actually, a defense that has, at times, carried him this season — he doesn’t have to be.
OU ranks 25th nationally in total defense (seven spots higher than LSU), 33rd against the run (10 spots lower than LSU), 23rd against the pass (33 spots higher than LSU) and 48th in points allowed (23 spots lower than LSU).
Those rankings were disastrously low in 2017 and even worse in 2018.
Oklahoma’s defensive makeover this season seems like exactly the reason why Riley hired Alex Grinch. But it’s not.
Saturday’s game is.
Sooner fans will forever lament national championships lost the last two years by historically bad defenses. Transformative quarterbacks — record-setters, Heisman winners, No. 1 overall picks — and historically prolific offenses could not overcome a defensive culture that had become rotted from the top down.
Just one more stop — one tackle, one incomplete pass during Georgia’s crucial stretch — would have meant victory over the Bulldogs. Just one more stop — one quarterback pressure, one swarm to the ball on either of ‘Bama’s fourth-quarter touchdown drives — would have meant a chance for the OU offense.
That’s why Grinch was brought in, to find a way to get that one more stop.
“I think Coach Grinch and the rest of the defensive coaching staff have done a great job of just getting across to us,” said junior linebacker Kenneth Murray. “For them, it’s really, on a daily basis, something that maybe at other programs, (players) don’t hear a message every day. But every day, we hear a message from our coaches that pretty much sets the tone for the day.
“As players, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of taking that and running with it and being able to apply that on a daily basis. I think that’s really what’s helped us become who we are right now.”
“The biggest difference is that you’re seeing guys consistently play at a high level in terms of the effort that they’ve shown,” said senior noseguard Neville Gallimore. “Just kind of showing that passion.”
It would have been easy for Grinch to come into Norman and say history doesn’t matter, the past is the past and he’s looking to the future. But instead of ignoring the elephant in the room, Grinch took a long look — and then embraced it.
“I think these kids have been through a lot,” Grinch said after the Sooners completed the biggest comeback in school history at Baylor. “I think sometimes I discount what we took over. Maybe there were some ghosts in there that we’ve got to make sure that we have an understanding of as a defensive coaching staff that we’re working through.
“Been some real highs in the past and some real lows in the past. We inherited a group with, like I said, some scars, some ghosts maybe that I wasn’t fully maybe appreciative of. So maybe I learned more in the last couple weeks than even they learned.”
Since winning in Waco, a span of four games, Oklahoma has allowed just 278 yards and 23.5 points per game and ended each game with a defensive takeaway. The Sooners did face two backup quarterbacks and two true freshmen during that stretch — but that’s kind of the point. In the past, backup quarterbacks looked like all-stars because the Sooner defense wasn’t mentally tough enough to avoid such letdowns.
“The overall confidence level is definitely something that’s up week in and week out,” Murray said. “I think guys are understanding that, you know, if we just do our jobs, then we’ll have success. I think that’s one of the areas that’s been up.”
Then again, this OU defense is missing two starters. Defensive end Ronnie Perkins was suspended for reportedly failing a drug test, and free safety Delarrin Turner-Yell suffered a broken collarbone last week. Perkins leads the Sooners in sacks and Turner-Yell had emerged as OU’s most consistent defensive back.
Also, Burrow is no true freshman, and he’s no backup. He’s a candidate to be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. LSU has the most prolific offense in college football because the Tigers are explosive virtually everywhere.
“It’s an elite group,” Grinch said. “Tremendous skill. I think, certainly, the best offensive line; they were named the best offensive line in the country. The quarterback is the Heisman Trophy winner. The receiver (Ja’Marr Chase) is a Biletnikoff Award winner. So, obviously, couldn’t have any more respect for an opponent that way.
“How they attack you, their coaching staff does a tremendous job. So it will be certainly a challenge for us.”
Riley was Bob Stoops’ point man when Stoops needed to remake the offense, so he knows about having patience in the face of needing immediate results.
“If you’ve been brought in in a situation like that where maybe a group hasn’t performed at the level that you would expect or hope, then you got to diagnose the problem first,” Riley said. “And then, yeah, I think it’s culture. I think the culture’s got to fit in with scheme. I think the scheme’s got to fit with the personnel that you have right there.”
And like Riley, Orgeron made a change in the offseason — not to the LSU defense, but to the offense. Orgeron hired Joe Brady, and Brady was named the nation’s top assistant. And for finally breathing life into the moribund LSU offense, Orgeron has won several national coach of the year awards. To that end, Orgeron has an appreciation for what Riley and Grinch have done with the OU defense.
“Like us, it probably started in the meeting rooms,” Orgeron said. “It probably started with an attitude. It probably started about the way we walk through stuff, the way we do everything. Probably a complete, different change. I think schematically, players, their great coaches, and then you’ve got to go out there on the practice field and do it. Obviously, they have.”
Grinch wasn’t a finalist for the Frank Broyles Award, and Riley wasn’t a finalist for any coach of the year accolades. But the reality is this has been Riley’s best coaching job so far in three seasons, and there aren’t many who have orchestrated a greater turnaround this year than Grinch has with the Oklahoma defense.
The future is bright for the Oklahoma defense, but that future becomes the present if the Sooners somehow get a few stops Saturday and finally get a playoff win.
“I’m excited about it. I’m not surprised about it,” Riley said. “Our guys have done a good job, and it’s not been overnight. It’s been a process. There’s been growing pains. There’s been bumps in the road. There always is. But our guys have stayed true to it.
“We’ve especially done it in key moments in big games, and to be able to do that kind of early in this defensive regime and kind of this new era defensively here is exciting.”
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander, and the Locked oN Sooners podcast on the Locked oN Podcast Network. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.