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College Football Preview 2019: 3. Oklahoma Sooners

3. Oklahoma Sooners

The offense is going to be elite as usual, but the defense absolutely has to improve to continue their hold on the Big 12

Jalen Hurts
Offense: There is no debate anymore that head coach Lincoln Riley is among the greatest offensive minds in collegiate football, and 2018 only helped that case. Riley oversaw his second straight Heisman Trophy winner, as Kyler Murray recorded over 5,000 yards of total offense and finished with 54 total touchdowns before becoming the No. 1 Draft selection. While Murray may be off to Arizona, don't expect the offense's momentum to slow anytime soon.

Riley and OU came away as the winners of the Jalen Hurts sweepstakes, as Hurts made his long-awaited decision to finish his collegiate career in Norman. Hurts will offer something a little bit different at the quarterback position than Murray or Baker Mayfield before him. He isn't the passer they were, but Hurts is more of a proven runner with excellent vision with the ball in his hands. There may be a slight adjustment period as Riley and Hurts figure each other out, but its hard to imagine the extremely accomplished signal-caller not coming in and having a successful senior campaign.

Hurts obviously had a lot of talent surrounding him with Alabama, and that also is the case with the Sooners. Oklahoma is stacked at the skill positions, even with some pieces recently deciding to go to the pros. At running back, Oklahoma will lean on the tandem of Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks going forward. Brooks is the powerful, throwback runner that represents the "thunder" in the backfield, while Sermon's electrifying speed is the "lightning". The pair of them had over 2,000 yards and 25 combined touchdowns, so the backfield is certainly in good hands. T.J. Pledger is another interesting piece to watch, as he added 179 yards in 2018 on just 30 carries.

They don't come a lot more explosive than Marquise "Hollywood" Brown, who was a thrill to watch every time he got a little bit of space. He was the latest in a lengthy list of star receivers to pass through Norman, and his departure leaves 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns needing to be replaced. The Sooners feel pretty confident that last year's No. 2 guy, CeeDee Lamb, can easily slide into the feature role. Lamb is not quite the burner that Brown was, but he is a crisp route runner that can make some absolutely jaw-dropping catches. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to already consider him the best wide out in the Big 12. Behind Lamb, OU is a little bit inexperienced, but there is a ton of upside ready to burst on to the scene. Sophomore Charleston Rambo certainly looks like he could be a breakout candidate, despite not seeing a ton of snaps last fall. He had just five receptions going into the CFB Playoff, before impressing with 74 yards and a 49-yard score against the vaunted Alabama secondary. Senior Lee Morris is another holdover that was buried on the depth chart behind both Brown and Lamb, although he still managed 457 yards and nearly 22 yards per catch. That trio will be important because of their valuable experience, but it is the freshly arriving newcomers that could bring even more excitement. Three big-name wide receiver recruits joined this team over the spring, and look ready to shine in this Riley-orchestrated offense. Jadon Hasselwood is the biggest name, as a five-star recruit from Georgia who is incredibly flashy and talented. Also arriving are two Texas products in Theo Wease and Trejan Bridges, who are going to find a way onto the field in some form or the other in 2019. Lastly, tight end should be a strength too, as rock-solid junior Grant Calcaterra is back.

One of the least talked about reasons for all of Murray's success was who he had in front of him: one of the best offensive lines in college football. It was a unit that consistently allowed Murray to get ample time to make some dazzling throws, while also opening up running lanes for him. Unfortunately for Hurts, he won't get quite the same treatment, as four starters depart from the group this year. However, it could still be a fine group if they can gel quickly. Sophomore center Creed Humphrey is a great starting point, as a hard-nosed blocker in the middle that is great at snapping out of the shotgun. Both tackle spots are going to have to step up, which likely will fall on junior Erik Swenson on the left side and either Adrian Ealy or David Swaby on the right. 

With how well Oklahoma has recruited and developed this offense the past few seasons, it is going to be a tremendous group going forward. Certainly the losses on the O-Line are going to have to be figured out but with the speed the Sooners have on the perimeter, they should still be among the best the NCAA has to offer, after finishing 1st nationally in both scoring and total offense.

Defense: To say that defense was the Achilles Heel for this Oklahoma team a year ago is an understatement. The Sooners were in the last in the Big 12 in every category but rush defense, where they came in sixth. The hope is that new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch can bring some much needed help to the unit, after stops at Washington State and Ohio State. Grinch will have nine starters back to assist him.

All three starters return to the defensive line, which includes long-time veterans Neville Gallimore and Kenneth Mann. Two two of them have been in some bad defenses, but they could learn a lot from a new voice in Grinch. The third starter is sophomore Ronnie Perkins, who offers loads of potential at defensive end. He lead the team in sacks last fall and remains a powerful force on the outside. This is not a very deep position group so the three starters are going to have to play long and hard snaps.

The winner of Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, junior Kenneth Murray clearly has high expectations entering 2019. Murray is an elite sideline-to-sideline linebacker that can really be shifted all around in this defense. He was a major reason why this rush defense was at least serviceable, coming down with a staggering 155 tackles a season ago. Murray will not have the support of Curtis Bolton alongside him, as Bolton graduated, meaning there is some retooling to do in the linebacker corps. Senior outside linebacker Mark Jackson has been around the program for awhile and looks like he could be a guy ready to see a larger role. Jackson is a pretty skilled pass rusher off the edge, with three sacks in 2018 despite limited playing time. The other outside linebacker position is a concern at the moment, with junior Byran Mead and sophomore DaShaun White squaring off through fall camp.

While they may have one of the country's most explosive pass offenses, Oklahoma also happened to have one of their worst pass defenses. In fact, they ranked dead last in FBS football in pass defense, surrendering 294 yards per game. That is an obvious No. 1 priority for Grinch, and the rest of this defensive staff, albeit returning a lot of experience back there obviously should help. Two of OU's better defenders are locked in at cornerback in Tre Brown and Parnell Motley. Brown is a young, but talented corner still learning the game, while Motley led the Sooners in interceptions in 2018. Nickelback also seems like a real strength, as junior Tre Norwood and sophomore Branden Radley-Hiles are going to play a major role. Radley-Hiles was a big-name recruit from the West Coast originally slated as a corner, but his versatility allows him to really move around on a defense. He has the chance to be a huge breakout candidate in this secondary. The safety spots aren't as clear of strengths, but the Sooners do still have junior Robert Barnes, as well as sophomore Patrick Fields. It still might not be enough for this unit to transform into a top-tier group, but Oklahoma still looks skilled enough to become at the very least, respectable.

The fact of the matter is Oklahoma really can't get much worse defensively. They couldn't put together stops at any point in 2018, and couldn't create much pressure or turnovers. The addition of Grinch should provide some energy and innovation to this group, although they'll still need their veterans to perform in order to once again rule the Big 12.

Special Teams: Long-time placekicker Austin Seibert is gone, opening the door for the starting job in Norman. Freshman Gabe Brkic ended the spring as the favorite to take over, although things will still need to be settled going forward. The Oklahoma return game has serious upside, with Tre Brown ready to handle kickoffs and CeeDee Lamb on punter.

With four straight Big 12 Titles, Oklahoma is clearly the team to beat in the conference going forward. Even entrenched as the heavy favorite, the Sooners ability to land a big name defensive coordinator (Alex Grinch) and an elite QB in the transfer portal (Jalen Hurts), shows their commitment to continue to improve. It is hard to imagine this 2019 edition getting any better offensively than last season's squad, but there is ample room for the defense to improve. With an experienced front seven and deep secondary, this team should be able to at least be serviceable on that side of the ball. If that does happen, with the Big 12 looking chaotic as ever, the Sooners should be able to take control of the league once more. That would most likely mean a third straight Playoff berth, and fourth in the program's storied history.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 12-1 (8-1 Big 12, Win Big 12 Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Jalen Hurts
Defensive MVP: LB Kenneth Murray
Breakout Player of the Year: DB Branden Radley-Hiles
Impact Freshman: WR Jadon Hasselwood

Five-Year Trend
2014: 8-5 (5-4 Big 12)
2015: 11-2 (8-1 Big 12)
2016: 11-2 (9-0 Big 12)
2017: 12-2 (8-1 Big 12)
2018: 12-2 (9-1 Big 12)

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