NEW ORLEANS — It’s a fair question to ask, an impossible question to answer, but a fun one to think about: where would this Oklahoma football team be without Baker Mayfield?
What if Kliff Kingsbury had granted Mayfield a scholarship at Texas Tech? What if the Red Raiders coach had assured Mayfield he’d done enough as a freshman walk-on in 2013 to earn the starting job the following season?
Mayfield, of course, would still be Mayfield. He’d still be leading his team and cutting up and goofing off and dancing around campus and living the Baker Mayfield Life. Maybe Texas Tech would be winning more games, but maybe they’d be about the same.
This question is more for Sooner fans: would OU have two Big 12 Conference trophies and a College Football Playoff/Orange Bowl trip and a return Monday to the Sugar Bowl, where 10-2 OU faces 8-4 Auburn?
The guess here is no.
Mayfield’s record as a OU’s starting QB is 21-4. He’s finished fourth and third in the Heisman Trophy voting. He owns two Brandon Burlsworth Trophies as America’s top former walk-on. He’s a two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection. Mayfield has set school records in Norman for completion percentage and pass efficiency rating and more.
Now, if Mayfield had stayed in Lubbock, would Trevor Knight have kept the starting job at Oklahoma? Probably. Would he have remained at OU this season, rather than spending his senior year at Texas A&M? Why wouldn’t he?
But would Knight have won all those games and received all those awards and set all those records?
Not a chance.
Knight is a good quarterback, as he’s proven again this fall in College Station. But the idea of him trying to operate Lincoln Riley’s offense just doesn’t work. His skills and Riley’s system are not a good fit.
So without Mayfield, what would Riley’s options have been?
Maybe Cody Thomas sticks around and tries to develop as a passer instead of going to play professional baseball. But Thomas’ skills didn’t seem really fit the Riley scheme, either. Besides, that kid’s a baseball natural.
Maybe Justice Hansen sticks around and tries to live up to his potential instead of taking off for Butler (Kansas) Community College (he had a good redshirt freshman season there) and then at Arkansas State (where this season he’s completed 59 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns, eight interceptions and 2,719 passing yards, 47th nationally). The Red Wolves started the year 0-4 but then went 7-1 in Sun Belt Conference play.
Or maybe Knight keeps the job and really blossoms as a passer under Riley’s guidance. This year at A&M, Knight endured a shoulder injury to throw for 2,432 yards (63rd in the nation) with 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also rushed for 614 yards and finished 32rd nationally in total offense at 3,046 yards. The Aggies started out 6-0 but then finished 8-5.
Or maybe some hotshot young recruit signs with the Sooners last year and beats them all out as a freshman or sophomore. Maybe it’s Austin Kendall, this year’s backup. Who knows what that would look like?
The Sooners under Mayfield, on the other hand, have been consistent winners and spectacularly productive offensively.
“I’m very impressed with him,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Sunday. “Obviously, he is an outstanding playmaker, makes a good decision when things break down. He plays with that edge. And all of the big-time quarterbacks have that edge. He has that.”
Mayfield and Riley were the perfect coupling at the perfect time, an ideal pairing of discipline and bravado, of trusting the system and doing your own thing.
Similarly, Mayfield’s slithery, gunslinger style of play allowed for receiving targets like Sterling Shepard and Dede Westbrook to develop as clutch performers.
Remember, Mayfield made his decision to come to OU after Knight’s big trip to the Sugar Bowl in 2013-14. But the Sooners languished under Knight that 2014 season. Knight’s confidence seemed deeply shaken after suffering temporary paralysis on a cheap-shot hit against Baylor.
What would 2015 and 2016 looked like without Mayfield?
It’s remarkable to consider how one young man’s bold decision to defiantly pull up the West Texas roots he had just planted so he could follow his heart to crimson and cream changed the fortunes of one of college football’s elite programs.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.