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College Football Preview 2018: 2. Oklahoma Sooners

2. Oklahoma Sooners

No Baker Mayfield, no problem; a bunch of other returning offensive weapons ensure the Sooners will not miss a beat

Marquise Brown
Offense: It can't be overstated how successful Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield were in his three seasons in Norman. The Sooners won the Big 12 each year, went to the Playoff twice and were awfully close to their first National Championship Game appearance in a decade. With that being said, the confidence surrounding new starting QB Kyler Murray is incredibly high. Murray originally began his career at Texas A&M as a five-star recruit and showed flashes of what he could do. However, he fell out of favor with the coaching staff in College Station before transferring to Oklahoma, where he has time to learn under Mayfield. Murray has impressive arm talent and lethal mobility, which should be quite the combo in Lincoln Riley's wide open offense. In limited action last year, he threw for 17 yards per attempt and had three touchdowns (21 passes thrown). It is a lot to expect Murray to come in and completely replicate Mayfield's impact, but the junior has all the tools to have a big season guiding this offense.

Murray shouldn't have to throw too much, as the Sooners return a stable of talented running backs, headlined by junior Rodney Anderson. Anderson split carries for most of 2017, but by the end of the year was the clear go-to guy in this backfield. He had a superb Rose Bowl game, with 201 yards and two scores against Georgia's stingy rush defense. He should be able to carry that momentum into 2018 and have a monster year. Sophomore Trey Sermon also returns as a change of pace option for Anderson. Sermon doesn't have Anderson's size, and relies more on his speed and elusiveness. True freshman T.J. Pledger could also see some action with junior Abdul Adams opting to transfer to Syracuse. Pledger is a four-star prospect from California who has the upside to be a workhorse back for this offense.

Riley and this coaching staff had plenty of fun with this talented group of receivers a year ago, and they have plenty to play with again in '18. Junior Marquise "Hollywood" Brown is as quick and explosive as they come in college football. The deep threat recorded 1,095 yards receiving, averaging nearly 20 yards per catch. He could do some serious damage against Big 12 defenses with Murray's arm. Sophomore CeeDee Lamb is also returning, after he added 807 yards and seven touchdowns. Lamb is not quite the proven deep threat Brown is but has an advantage in size and a wide catch radius. Junior Mykel Jones was buried behind more experienced options a season ago but could be a breakout candidate as the No. 3 receiver in this pass-happy offense. Oklahoma will miss Mackey Award winner Mark Andrews at tight end, who was essentially another receiver for this offense. Yet, sophomore Grant Calcaterra is a well-built tight end who should develop into a formidable red zone threat for this offense.

Mayfield also had the distinct luxury of playing behind one of the nation's best offensive lines last season. The Sooners aren't quite as loaded up front this year, but three starters return and there is a good amount of experience back. Seniors Ben Powers and Dru Samia are All-Conference candidates at the guard spots, with junior Bobby Evans set to move from right tackle to the left side. 

Its going to feel weird not having Mayfield on the sidelines this fall in Norman, considering the role he has played for this team the last three seasons. Yet, Riley is one of the best young offensive minds in the game, and he still has loads of talent at his disposal. It will be hard to match the nearly 580 yards per game (best in the country) the Sooners averaged a year ago, but this offense shouldn't struggle to light up the scoreboard.

Defense: The bigger questions for this Oklahoma team start where they have the last few years: on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has made some strides with this Sooners' defense, but it still isn't quite at the level it needs to be for OU to win a National Title. It will be interesting to see if that will change this year, as the unit has a ton of talent but isn't very experienced.

The defensive front is going to be a strength, as a number of veterans return to a D-Line that was the strength of the defense a season ago. Defensive tackles Amani Bledsoe and Marquise Overton are key cogs in the middle that play a pivotal role in rush defense. They both should be able to put up productive seasons with plenty of game experience under their belt. Defensive end is the bigger question, where the Sooners must replace two starters. Junior Kenneth Mann has the talent to be a breakout star, but Stoops and this defense may have to lean heavily on some newcomers, including St. Louis product Ronnie Perkins.

Oklahoma will certainly miss outside linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, a fearless pass rusher off the edge who had 17 TFL and eight sacks last season. However, every other significant piece is set to return to the linebacker corps. Junior Caleb Kelly is a proven playmaker that will be used primarily in coverage thanks to his speed and athleticism, while sophomore Kenneth Murray may be the best defender on this entire team. Murray was forced into a key role early and didn't disappoint, finishing third on the team in tackles with 68, along with earning Freshman All-American honors. Middle linebacker is a concern, without a clear-cut starter. Sophomore Jon-Michael Terry saw the bulk of the snaps in the spring.

The Sooners' pass defense was porous in 2017, ranking 87th in the country with 238 yards allowed per game. Amazingly, this was third best in the Big 12, showing just how pass-happy of the league the conference is. The good news is the cornerback spot should be in good hands, with veterans Parnell Motley and Tre Norwood both back and set to return to starting gigs. However, true freshman Brendan Radley-Hiles could fight for starting snaps right away. The talented defensive back out of California had a superb spring after early enrolling, and he has a bright future. Safety isn't quite as clear of a strength for this team. Senior Khalil Haughton is the only senior expected to play heavy snaps in this secondary, and he'll be asked to be a leader. Depth is also a concern, as youth abounds heavily on the two-deep in the defensive backfield.

It will be interesting to see whether Stoops and the rest of this staff can engineer some improvement on defense. There is a good amount of returning experience, and the rush defense could actually be very good if the front seven stays healthy. The X-factor will be the secondary, which allowed too many big plays in 2017. If it takes a step forward, it becomes very hard to imagine anyone overtaking the Sooners in the Big 12.

Special Teams: Having a consistent kicker and punter is a luxury for any coach, and Lincoln Riley enjoys just that in senior Austin Seibert. Seibert was 17 for 21 on field goals last year and was also highly productive as the team's punter. He is fifth in OU history in career field goals made entering his final year. 

After longtime head coach Bob Stoops stepped down just weeks before the start of the 2017 season, the Sooners seemed to actually get better under Lincoln Riley. The young head coach opened up this offense even more, and he continues to recruit very well. 2018 should be a great opportunity for an even better encore; the offense has the chance to be just as dangerous, and perhaps more versatile with the ground game set to become more of a focus. On the other side of the ball there are holes, but enough experience and playmaking potential for Oklahoma to be just fine. The schedule could be tricky; the opener with Florida Atlantic is scary, and the defense will get tested early against Chip Kelly and UCLA a week later. Even so, I enter this season very confident in the Sooners. Even in the wide-open Big 12 which has had parity for a long time, the Sooners look set to win their fourth straight league title. If Murray really is as good as some think, a National Title berth may not be out of the cards either.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 12-1 (8-1 Big 12, Win Big 12 Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: RB Rodney Anderson
Defensive MVP: LB Kenneth Murray
Breakout Player of the Year: QB Kyler Murray 

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