John Hoover

John E. Hoover: Thanks to defense, Sooners 9th in first CFP rankings with tough November ahead

John E. Hoover: Thanks to defense, Sooners 9th in first CFP rankings with tough November ahead

Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) scrambles during the game against West Virginia. (The Franchise/Aaron Davis)

Kudos to Lincoln Riley, and kudos to Alex Grinch.

As personally difficult as it may have been for Riley to make a change in defensive coordinators, the College Football Playoff selection committee has taken note of Grinch’s good works.

OU (7-1) came in ranked No. 9 in Tuesday night’s playoff rankings, and the committee now sees a more balanced team in Norman.

Whether that eventually equates to a spot in the top four and a fourth CFP trip in five years remains to be seen. There are still four weeks left in the regular season as well as Championship Saturday. The final rankings — the ones that actually count — will be revealed on Sunday, Dec. 8.

There’s a long way to go. Ohio State starts out ranked No. 1, LSU is No. 2, Alabama is No. 3 and Penn State opens at No. 4. Also ahead of OU is No. 5 Clemson, No. 6 Georgia, No. 7 Oregon and No. 8 Utah. That is a lot of ground to make up in five weeks.

The Sooners need to win their next five games — probably by comfortable margins — and hope November produces enough losses ahead of them to slip into the field.

OU was No. 7 when the 2018 rankings debuted, No. 5 in 2017. But when the Sooners made the playoff in 2015, they opened up at No. 15.

Either way, it’s worth noting that Oklahoma received applause this time, rather than derision, for its defense.

Criticized by the committee in past years for having a one-dimensional team heavy on offense and light on defense, this season OU finally has a defense under Grinch that is at least representative of a final four team.

“We’re only looking at this year’s results and this year’s teams,” said CFP selection committee chair Rob Mullens said on a conference call Tuesday night after the first rankings of the season were revealed on ESPN. “So that’s our focus. What we see when we see Oklahoma is a very powerful offense with outstanding play from the quarterback and a defense that’s performing pretty well most weeks.”

Mike Stoops’ defenses ranked in the 100s or worse, but that still wasn’t enough to keep the Sooners out of the playoff with Riley’s high scoring offenses usually picking up the slack. Now, Riley’s offense still leads the nation in numerous categories, but Grinch’s defense currently ranks 30th in the nation in total defense (338 yards per game) and 41st in scoring defense (23 points per game).

Still, past committee chairmen like Jeff Long and Kirby Hocutt routinely pointed out that OU’s defenses were simply not in the same category as their counterparts at Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and elsewhere.

“What we see when we watch Oklahoma,” Mullens said, “what was discussed in the room is, again, a very powerful offense — Jalen Hurts has stepped right into coach Riley’s offense — and then an improved defense.”

At the beginning of the call, Mullens stressed the subjective nature of the process, 13 people convening in a hotel meeting space to rank 25 college football teams from around the nation.

He also talked of subjectivity when assessing the committee’s past metric of “game control” and how it relates to the Sooners’ 48-41 loss at Kansas State. OU trailed by 25 points in the fourth quarter before making a late rally, but for most of the second half, it was K-State that had “game control.”

“We don’t (incentivize) margin of victory,” Mullens said. “We did watch the game, of course, and saw how it played out. And obviously that’s their only loss, and you can see what the committee thought of Kansas State in that they ranked them 16th.”

That’s not all that believable. Rallying back from a big deficit to an official’s call on an onside kick in the final minutes of a 7-point game is a lot better for OU than just folding up shop and losing by 25.

The committee also assessed Oklahoma’s flagging non-conference schedule. UCLA has rallied but still is only 4-5, and Houston has endured major turmoil and a 3-6 record. And playing FCS South Dakota did the Sooners no favors.

“Well obviously we’re very aware when there’s an FCS team, but Oklahoma went on the road at UCLA, an improving UCLA team, and when they played Houston, Houston had an experienced quarterback. The committee is very well aware of that.”

Both Oregon and Utah of the Pac-12 Conference played a stiffer non-conference schedule, and they came in ranked No. 7 and 8, respectively, but Mullen said the non-con was only part of the Sooners’ equation.

“We don’t slice it that way,” Mullens said. “We’re looking at full body of work. And the non-conference is a piece of that.”

OU and Kansas State weren’t the only Big 12’s ranked teams on Tuesday night. Baylor (7-0) came in at No. 12-0 — second lowest of any undefeated team — and Oklahoma State (6-3) opened at No. 23 — highest of any three-loss team.

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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.

 

The CFP Top 25

  1. Ohio State (8-0)
  2. LSU (8-0)
  3. Alabama (8-0)
  4. Penn State (8-0)
  5. Clemson (9-0)
  6. Georgia (7-1)
  7. Oregon (8-1)
  8. Utah (8-1)
  9. Oklahoma (7-1)
  10. Florida (7-2)
  11. Auburn (7-2)
  12. Baylor (8-0)
  13. Wisconsin (6-2)
  14. Michigan (7-2)
  15. Notre Dame (6-2)
  16. Kansas State (6-2)
  17. Minnesota (8-0)
  18. Iowa (6-2)
  19. Wake Forest (7-1)
  20. Cincinnati (7-1)
  21. Memphis (8-1)
  22. Boise State (7-1)
  23. Oklahoma State (6-3)
  24. Navy (7-1)
  25. SMU (8-1)

John Hoover
@JohnEHoover

John Hoover wrote for the Tulsa World for 24 years before joining The Franchise, where he was co-host of "Further Review" and "The Franchise Drive." Now he's The Franchise college football insider: Oklahoma's state Heisman rep, a voter in the FWAA Super 16 poll, an FWAA media access liaison, and a Big 12 writer at Sporting News and Lindy's preseason magazine. In his time at the World, Hoover won numerous writing and reporting awards, including in 2011 National Beat Writer of the Year from the Associated Press Sports Editors for his work covering the Oklahoma Sooners. From 2012 to 2016, Hoover was the World's lead sports columnist and won national awards in 2012 and 2014 from the National Athletic Trainers Association for reporting on sports medicine and in 2015 won first place in sports columns from the Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists. After receiving a journalism degree from East Central University, Hoover worked at newspapers in Ada, Okmulgee, Tahlequah and Waynesville, Mo. He played football at Ada High School and grew up in North Pole, Alaska. Hoover and his family live in Broken Arrow.

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