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College Football Preview 2021: 1. Oklahoma Sooners

Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma


1. Oklahoma Sooners

With a Heisman favorite running the offense and the best defense since Lincoln Riley has gotten here, Oklahoma is my National Title pick

2020 Review
By normal Oklahoma standards, the start of 2020 was completely uncharacteristic. After blowing out Missouri State to get things going, the Sooners were shocked by Kansas State for the second year in a row, a team coming off a loss to Sun Belt foe Arkansas State. One week later, Oklahoma came up short in a chaotic night game in Ames, heading into the Red River Showdown with Texas at 1-2. The Sooners found a way to overcome their chief rivals in four overtimes, which ended up being the motivator they needed to turn the season around. OU would win their next seven games, got vengeance against Iowa State in the Big 12 Championship Game and capped it all off by blowing out Florida in the Cotton Bowl. The 9-2 record was far from perfect, but showed just how much staying power the program has under Lincoln Riley. They suffered through serious adversity in the form of opt-outs and injuries and still took home their sixth consecutive Big 12 Title. This season, expect not only a seventh conference crown to be the goal, but even loftier heights.

2021 Outlook
Offense: Following up the run of quarterbacks Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts was going to be a lot to ask out of any young signal-caller. Naturally, Spencer Rattler had notable growing pains as he adjusted to his leading role in the Sooner offense, but by the end of 2020 he was playing just about as well as anyone in the nation.

Now, Rattler enters 2021 as one of the premier stars at the game's most important position. He's hoping to show the natural arm talent and athleticism that made him a highly touted prospect in the first place, while also proving he has improved as a decision-maker and game manager. Right now, he has the best odds of anybody in the country to be the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner and it wouldn't be a shock at all to see him finish up in New York. 

Rattler should also be helped out by the fact that Oklahoma's skill positions are in store for a major upgrade this fall. That starts at tailback, where Rhamondre Stevenson led the way with a fairly pedestrian 665 yards and seven scores. Stevenson is gone, but coming back is junior Kennedy Brooks, who opted out in 2020. Brooks totaled 1,011 yards in 2019 before the opt-out and immediately becomes one of the best running backs in the Big 12. He is joined by talented newcomer Eric Gray, who transferred from Tennessee following the firing of Jeremy Pruitt. Gray had over 1,000 yards of total offense on a terrible Tennessee team in 2020, and could be in store for even greater things in this dynamic OU system. Those two ensure that a group that was underwhelming last year are now a clear strength for the Sooners.

The wide receiver position was also not up to their usual stuff last fall. Oklahoma lost three of their top four pass-catchers from the 2019 team and then potential breakout star Jadon Haselwood tore his ACL in the spring. The lack of proven targets forced untested youngsters into prime positions in this offense, including Marvin Mims and Drake Stoops, Bob's son. Mims ended up being quite the revelation, as he led the team with 37 catches for 610 yards. He now enters 2021 as one of the best receivers in the entire country, while Stoops, Theo Wease, and a healthy Haselwood are also returning. Wease totaled 530 yards in 2020 and after missing most of the spring, is expected to be good to go for the season opener at Tulane. 

Oklahoma is also very excited about several newcomers to the receiver corps that could step into large roles. Mike Woods comes over from Arkansas after totaling 1,248 yards in three seasons in Fayetteville, including 619 last season. He's joined by a pair of notable freshmen in Mario Williams and Cody Jackson, both who came in during the spring. Williams should play a unique role as a versatile playmaker who can play in the slot, but also shift outside if necessary. He's only 5'9", 165 pounds but is an absolute demon in the open field. Opposing defenses shudder to think about all the different ways Riley and this OU offense can utilize him.

Tight end is an underrated aspect of Oklahoma's offense, but sophomore Austin Stogner was an All-Big 12 contributor in 2020 after tallying 422 yards. He's the clear-cut starter this fall, but junior Jeremiah Hall is also going to see the field. He will play the tight end/H-back role in this offense and is sure to feature in some creative ways.

Offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh continues to do an excellent job with this unit, which has three starters back for 2021. The two departures are significant, in longtime center Creed Humphrey and tackle Adrian Ealy, but there's still enough for this position group to be a real strength this fall. Guards Tyrese Robinson and Marquis Hayes should engineer a potent rushing attack, while veteran Erik Swenson will handle one of the tackle spots. Expect two former Power Five transfers, UCLA's Chris Murray and Tennessee's Wanya Morris, to also factor in somewhere. Morris started 19 games during his time in Knoxville and while he's most natural at right tackle, he could theoretically slide elsewhere as needed.

Even with depleted skill positions and a young QB, Oklahoma averaged nearly 500 yards per game and 43 points per game in 2020. With Rattler set for a big year and Brooks back at tailback, the expectation is for those numbers to get even better this year. It wouldn't shock me at all if this ends up being the best offense in America in 2021.

Defense: The rebuilding job Riley and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch continue defensively appears to be paying off. The Sooners put up their best defensive numbers in years last season, and with nine starters back, this unit may end up being a significant strength overall.

The Sooner pass rush continues to improve, and may now be the best in the Big 12 in 2021. While defensive end Ronnie Perkins departed for the NFL, just about everyone else is back in Norman. That includes defensive tackle Jalen Redmond, who totaled 6.5 sacks in 2019 but opted out last year. Veterans Isaiah Thomas and Perrion Winfrey return after All-Conference performances a season ago. Winfrey plays a key role in run support at the nose guard spot, while Thomas had 7.5 sacks in 2020. 

At linebacker, Nik Bonitto is likely to be a serious contender for the Butkus Award. Playing at the hybrid "Rush" position, he's a ferocious competitor who lives in opponent's backfields. He led the team with nine sacks last season and should once again be unleashed regularly. He's the type of player Grinch loves on his defenses, as slightly undersized for his position, but fast and long. Also returning to the linebacker corps is Brian Asamoah and David Ugwoegbu. Asamoah stepped up due to a season-ending injury to Caleb Kelly and led the Sooners in tackles. With Kelly set to return at 100 percent, the pair might end up splitting reps at the position this year. Depth is of no concern here either, with names like DaShaun White and Marcus Stripling proving they can come in and contribute, even as rotational pieces.

The real test for Oklahoma's improved defense will be in the secondary. The pass defense has been atrocious throughout most of the Riley era, but it showed significant improvement a season ago. Cornerbacks Tre Brown and Tre Norwood are both now in the NFL, but neither are overwhelming losses for this unit. Jaden Davis and Woodi Washington are likely to take over at the corner spots and while both have struggled with consistency, they have obvious upside. Davis had 33 tackles as a true freshman in 2019 but didn't make the sort of jump many people expected in 2020. It could all come together for him a year later.

At safety, veterans Delarrin Turner-Yell and Pat Fields are both returning. Turner-Yell and Fields were No. 2 and 3 on the team in tackles, but Fields may be pushed for a starting spot by highly touted transfer Key Lawrence, yet another piece arriving from Tennessee. Lawrence is not super experienced but his size and range is something OU has desperately needed in this secondary for years. Nickelback is another spot to keep an eye on as the season unfolds. Brendan Radley-Hiles was an incredibly talented but frustrating player during his time at Oklahoma. He transferred to Washington over the off-season, opening the door for redshirt freshman Jeremiah Criddel.

The hiring of Grinch and an emphasis on recruiting defensively has seriously challenged Oklahoma's outlook on this side of the ball. There is serious star power at all three levels and more depth and experience than at any point so far in the Riley tenure. With numerous other defenses rebuilding in the Big 12, this may end up being the best the league has to offer.

Special Teams:

Bottom Line: Since taking over for the legendary Bob Stoops, Lincoln Riley has preceded over five Big 12 Titles and three Playoff appearances. He's coached two Heisman Trophy winners and countless other NFL Draftees during that span, and has earned a reputation for some of the most exciting offenses in college football. However, the next step for Riley and the Sooner program is clear: not to just make the CFB Playoff, but to prove they can beat the elites once they get there. This looks like a team with the capability to do it, particularly when you consider Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State are all breaking in new quarterbacks and other fresh faces. Not only does Oklahoma have a star QB of their own, they have a favorable schedule, and possibly their best defense in a long time. It all sets up perfectly for the Sooners to take home their first National Title since the turn of the millennium.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 13-0 (10-0 Big 12, Win Big 12 Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Spencer Rattler
Defensive MVP: LB Nik Bonitto
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Jadon Haselwood
Impact Freshman: WR Mario Williams

Recruiting Breakdown
In addition to a dominant showing in the transfer portal over the off-season, Oklahoma landed the nation's 10th best recruiting class. The group is highlighted by five-star quarterback Caleb Williams, who will undoubtedly be the next in a long line of elite signal-callers coached by Lincoln Riley. Williams won't play much in 2021 unless catastrophic injury occurs, but he earned even more hype with a strong showing in the spring. Other big names in the group include defensive end Clayton Smith, wide out Mario Williams, and athlete Billy Bowman. Bowman is an extremely interesting prospect, a guy who could theoretically play both ways at some point in his collegiate career. He's been getting most of his work at the nickelback spot and could see playing time there now that Radley-Hiles is gone, but he played wide out throughout his high school career. One last name to highlight is four-star safety Jordan Mukes, who is still unpolished at this point in his career, but has impressive size at 6'4".

Five-Year Trend

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