NORMAN — Just four days ago, Oklahoma’s non-conference schedule looked pretty stout.
Amazing how perceptions can change after one college football weekend.
The Sooners put a severe hurt on Florida Atlantic on Saturday at Owen Field, 63-14. For all of coach Lane Kiffin’s bluster, for all of last year’s success, for all the Owls’ last-chance transfers, the FAU game was a dud. Kiffin’s team — undisputed champs of Conference USA in 2017 — was in over its head and literally out of its league.
Much of FAU’s awful performance, of course, is due to the Sooners’ excellence. For the second year in a row, Riley’s season debut was a 49-point blowout and physical and schematic mismatch.
It’s the other two non-conference opponents, though, that looked surprisingly miserable.
This week’s opponent, UCLA, is supposed to be at least mediocre in its first year under offensive mastermind Chip Kelly. Instead, the Bruins gained just 306 total yards and lost 26-17 at home to Cincinnati team that was a 14-point underdog and isn’t highly regarded this season after back-to-back 4-8 seasons. The Bearcats beat just three FBS teams last year, and all three had a losing record.
OU’s opponent two weeks after that, Army, went 10-3 last year and operates the kind of funky ground-based option offense that should give most teams trouble. But the Black Knights cratered (two fumbles, two missed field goals) in a 34-14 loss at Duke, an ACC also-ran that went 4-8 and 7-6 the last two years.
Not to look too far down the road, but Sooner Nation hopes a non-conference schedule that once looked at least curiously formidable doesn’t come back to haunt their team come playoff time.
Regardless of last week’s outcomes, OU coach Lincoln Riley says UCLA has his team’s attention. FAU had a handful of high-level transfers, including a quarterback whom Riley recruited to Norman. But UCLA’s roster is lined with such players from top to bottom, the coach said.
“There’s a lot of really good athletes,” Riley said. “When you turn on the tape, they look great on the hoof. Did a lot of really good things. Played very well defensively in the second half against Cincinnati. You see some big, good-looking guys. Especially the outside linebacker (Jaelan Phillips), he’s a grown man. Makes a lot of plays. Very experienced secondary. Guys with a lot of starts. Very, very quality players there. So, going to be a great challenge.”
The Bruins went 10-3 in 2014 and 8-5 in 2015, but slipped to 4-8 two years ago and finished just 6-7 last year, bad enough to get coach Jim Mora fired.
UCLA had high hopes for 2018 with Kelly, Oregon’s former schematic genius, back in college football after an unsuccessful run in the NFL and graduate transfer quarterback Wilson Speight coming in from Michigan. But Speight was injured early on Saturday against the Bearcats and was replaced by freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson, and Kelly’s offense was limited. The Bruins rushed for 144 yards (4.6 per carry) but only passed for 162 (23-of-37).
Still, Riley said UCLA’s athletes are a significant upgrade over last Saturday’s opener.
“The body types are different, especially when you look around the line of scrimmage,” Riley said. “That’s the spot that it’s the most noticeable. These two outside linebackers we’re getting ready to play (the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Phillips and 6-4, 235-pound Keisean Lucier-South) both look as good as you can look. They play outside linebacker. They’re long, rocked up, can move. Kind of how you draw them up. They’re gonna look like that, the front seven defensively. I know they’re very good in the back end, which I think the group last week was too.
“Certainly, their offensive line, their tight ends, their backs, you’re certainly gonna see more athletes on the field and you’re gonna see bigger frames, bigger people overall. It’s always been a program that’s recruited well, regardless who’s the head coach. They’ve always put a lot of talent in the NFL. It’s definitely gonna be a different-looking team that walks on the field.”
Couple those athletes with the Chip Kelly factor and Riley signals legitimate respect for a team that clearly struggled last week.
“The impact of Chip Kelly, just one game in, you can see offensively that they do what he does,” Riley said. “They’re going to continue to get better and better at it.
“We’ve studied him some. Maybe more in how he packages plays. I thought it was pretty creative. I think everybody’s taken some things from what they did from a tempo standpoint. I mean, I think everybody’s looked at that a little bit. We’re quite a bit different schematically than they are now. But I think maybe the principles and packaging were always eye-popping, and I thought they were always creative too.
“You could always turn on the film and find something that was maybe a new idea or new wrinkle that you thought could help or build into your own system. When they were at Oregon, when those guys were on TV you were always trying to catch a peek of it to see what they were doing.”
Oklahoma owns a 3-1 advantage in the all-time series with UCLA, and the Sooners mostly have caught a break that the Bruins weren’t all that good at the time.
When they met in Norman in 1986, Barry Switzer’s No. 1-ranked Sooners crushed No. 4 UCLA 38-3 and the Bruins finished 8-3-1. In 1990, Gary Gibbs’ 23rd-ranked OU squad prevailed over No. 19 UCLA 34-14 in Pasadena and UCLA ended the year 5-6. In 2003, No. 1 OU pounded the unranked Bruins 59-24 in Norman behind three Antonio Perkins punt return TDs and the Bruins ended up 6-7.
It was back in Pasadena in 2005, on the way to a 10-2 record, that UCLA finally prevailed 41-24 as Rhett Bomar committed five of OU’s seven fumbles and the 21st-ranked Sooners fell.
“Obviously, an important non-conference game,” Riley said. “Great, historical program. Ton of great athletes with the UCLA program. A game I know is exciting to our fanbase. It’s exciting for our players. It’ll get the attention, nationally, too, because of the matchup — not a very traditional matchup. Got a long line of really good non-conference games we’ve scheduled and have a lot of opportunity to play here. We’re excited about this one.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. 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 also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.