NORMAN — Is Oklahoma ready?
Did the Sooners get enough done in the non-conference part of their schedule to avoid whatever pitfalls lie ahead in Big 12 Conference play?
“There’s going to be new challenges, certainly,” coach Lincoln Riley said Monday during his weekly news conference.
First up is Riley’s alma mater, Texas Tech.
These are not exactly Kliff Kingsbury’s Red Raiders. Sallisaw native Matt Wells is a couple degrees removed from the Mike Leach coaching tree that has produced so many air raid disciples, including Riley. And defensively, the Red Raiders have exceeded expectations.
But the question isn’t about 2-1 Tech. It’s really about 3-0 Oklahoma — and what the sixth-ranked Sooners’ non-conference opponents did, if anything, to prepare OU for what’s next.
In all, the three non-con opponents — Houston, South Dakota and UCLA — have an aggregate record of 3-9. One of those — UCLA’s 67-63 win at Leach’s Washington State squad on Saturday — required a miracle. South Dakota is, at best, a middling FCS team.
So the Cougars, Coyotes and Bruins aren’t any good, and it showed in their games against Oklahoma: 49-31, 70-14 and 48-14, respectively.
But dig a little deeper, and compare where Texas Tech is compared to the Sooners’ non-conference opponents:
- Tech ranks 48th in ESPN’s FPI ratings, while UCLA is 54th and Houston 75th.
- According to Jeff Sagarin, Tech’s power ranking is 46th, Houston’s is 66th and UCLA’s is 68th.
- And Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings have Tech 47th, Houston 65th and UCLA 78th. UCLA’s number would rank 10th among Big 12 schools, ahead of only Kansas.
But Riley isn’t overly concerned with someone else’s analytics or data or rankings. He’s concerned about the ones inside the Barry Switzer Center.
“Yeah, we’re going to continue to play good teams,” Riley said. “That’s why we keep saying, regardless of whatever results, regardless of what side the ball, you’ve got to be taking steps forward. Yeah, maybe it helps you win a game a couple of weeks ago, but it also is a factor as you go on down the road? Are you improving?
“Because you get in those big moments, against really good teams and really good players, it shows up. And you’ve either been prepping all along or you haven’t. And if you don’t, then those holes will show against great people.”
It may seem counterintuitive or even topsy-turvy, but so far in 2019, Texas Tech’s defense has outperformed its offense. Tech beat FCS Montana State 45-10, then trampled UTEP 38-3. Those teams were outclassed, but even in a 28-14 loss at Arizona, the Red Raiders held dynamic Khalil Tate to 185 passing yards and two interceptions.
Tate did get going on the ground for 129 yards, including an 84-yard touchdown run, so maybe Riley is hoping to similarly exploit quarterback Jalen Hurts.
In that game, 11 Tech players caught a pass, and six caught at least three. Wideout T.J. Vasher is an All-Big 12 candidate, and although super sophomore Alan Bowman is out with a shoulder injury, backup Jett Duffey accounted for 186 yards and two touchdowns in the second half of last year’s 51-46 OU victory in Lubbock.
“We’ve played some outstanding individual players up to this point,” Riley said. “I think we’re going to play more outstanding overall units as we go forward. The other thing I would say, too, is just the quality of skill position players that’s you’re getting ready to see throughout the league. A lot of the best skill position players in the country are on our schedule here in the next whatever it is, 8-10 weeks.”
Riley said he’s “not satisfied, but excited, encouraged,” about Alex Grinch’s defense.
One reason for excitement is the return of defensive tackle Kenneth Mann, a 13-game starter last year and the leader among OU’s defensive line with 51 tackles and seven QB hurries. Mann, a senior, was the Sooners’ best down lineman last season but has been out with a preseason injury.
“He’s been a good player for us,” Riley said. “But he’s going to have to come back and earn the reps just like everyone else. We’ve got some good players there.”
Grinch is also experimenting with freshman receiver Trejan Bridges, a 5-star offensive prospect who has begun also playing some defense this week. He’ll hope to playmaking consistency — or depth, at least — to the safety position.
It’s still early, but the Sooner defense has looked markedly better in 2019. Bearing that out, OU’s defensive efficiency so far this year ranks 26th in the nation, according to ESPN’s FPI.
“I think it’s shown a lot of the positive signs I would have hoped that we would have shown at this point,” Riley said. Excited about where we can go. But we’ve got to continue on an upward trajectory, and we can’t let anything within our control stop that momentum. We’ve got some momentum there, and we’ve got to keep it. And we’ve got to keep building. Because you’re right. Better, worse, whatever, the challenges are going to be different. They’re going to be different each week. We know that playing in this league.
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.