When it comes to College Football Playoff veterans, Alabama and Clemson are the two teams that come to mind. But don't forget about No. 4 Oklahoma, which will make its fourth playoff appearance since the format was born six years ago. However, unlike Alabama and Clemson, Oklahoma doesn't have a national championship to show for its success. Actually, it doesn't have a championship game appearance to show for it. The Sooners have never gotten past the semifinal round.
Can that change this year? It's another uphill climb if it's going to. No. 1 LSU (-13.5) is a big favorite in the Peach Bowl over Oklahoma, and that line has been rising since opening odds were released earlier this month. Still, there are a lot of reasons to like the Sooners in the playoff this time around. This is likely the most complete team they have fielded in the playoff era. They're still fast and powerful on offense while improved on defense and supremely well-coached across the board. In our continuing series, here's why the underdog Sooners can get over the hump and win it all.
1. The defense is no longer a liability: When I made the same case for the Sooners to win it all a year ago, there was one obvious red flag:. It was historically bad for a team vying for a national championship. That they even made it to the playoff with practically zero margin for error still baffles a year later. But that's not the case this time around. Oklahoma doesn't need to score every time its offense is on the field. In fact, anyone who's watched Oklahoma this year knows the defense has bailed out the offense on more than a few occasions this year.
Let's start with the numbers, as they're much better. Oklahoma ranks at or near the top of the Big 12 in the major defensive statistical categories after finishing at or near the bottom of those same categories a year ago. They're third in points per game (24.5) and yards per pass attempt (6.7) and fourth vs. the run (4 yards per rush). Most notably, they lead the conference in total defense (330.6 yards per game) after finishing dead last a year ago. What makes all of this even more impressive is that the Sooners are -7 in turnover margin on the year. Again, the defense has bailed out the offense more than most people probably realizes. Before anyone fires off their jokes, the Big 12 has been a vastly improved conference for defenses. Baylor and Iowa State have top-25 defenses and the Sooners really aren't that far behind. SP+ ranks Oklahoma with the 36th-best defense -- notably behind the other three playoff teams, but certainly good enough.
And with Oklahoma, "good enough" is a solid start. The offense is still one of college football's best, ranking first again in yards per play (8.15) while maintaining a top-10 scoring unit and ranking second overall by SP+. Now that the defense gives the other side a little more breathing room, there's not as much pressure to play perfectly all the time. And the offense still gets its chances. Oklahoma's defense ranks ninth nationally in getting off the field on third down. The job first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has done with largely the same group of players from a year ago was truly Broyles Award-worthy.
2. Jalen Hurts and CeeDee Lamb are a dynamic duo: Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy called Oklahoma's offense a "one-man show" regarding Hurts and his role in this offense. That's true ... to a point. Hurts has indeed been a stats hog, leading the Big 12 with 376.1 yards of total offense per game to go along with 50 touchdowns. He leads Oklahoma in rushing and passing, so yes, he is pivotal to what the Sooners do in terms of moving the ball. But let's not forget about Lamb, either. Stats aside, one could make the case that Lamb is the better player and more likely to be successful as a pro.
Yes, the numbers are good: Lamb has a team-best 58 catches for 1,208 yards and 14 touchdowns -- all while missing the November game against Baylor. More than that, though, he's among the toughest one-on-one matchups on the outside. Pro Football Focus ranks Lamb among the best wideouts in the country once the ball is in his hand. A quick glance over his highlight reel shows why. There's a true alpha dog mentality in Lamb's game and once he's in the open field he's almost impossible to bring down despite not having traditional WR1 size on the perimeter.
Oklahoma's offense is more dependent on Hurts and Lamb than it has been with other top-end playmakers in recent years. Some of that is due to injury and attrition, particularly at running back. But the connection Hurts and Lamb have is special, and both of them are hard to stop in their own ways. That Oklahoma can hurt you equally through the air and on the ground, combined with the new-look defense, is what makes this team so complete.
3. The Sooners know this stage well: In the six years of the playoff, only three teams have at least four appearances: Alabama and Clemson have five, and Oklahoma has four. Three of those appearances have come in the last three years, this one included. Oklahoma has also entered all three of those games as the underdog. So this is familiar territory for coach Lincoln Riley and his team; many of the players who will face off against No. 1 LSU in the Peach Bowl have been in this spot before. In fact, the Sooners were big underdogs last season against Alabama (-14.5) in the Orange Bowl semifinal, so the 13.5-point spread against the Tigers this year is hardly news for them.
"It doesn't matter what the outside noise is. At the end of the day, in Atlanta, Georgia, on Dec. 28, there's going to be a 60-minute ballgame played."— OU Daily Sports (@OUDailySports) December 19, 2019
Kenneth Murray shrugs off the "underdog tag" given to the #Sooners ahead of the Peach Bowl: https://t.co/RhlFgtLgEh
Even the "newest" Sooner isn't phased by this stage. Keep in mind that Hurts has played in not one, not two, but three playoffs already. He's 2-0 as a starter in semifinal games and has made an appearance in all three of his previous national championship games when he was with Alabama. In 2016, he came within one go-ahead touchdown of winning the whole thing, too. Experience doesn't necessarily indicate who will win, but LSU will playing on college football's biggest stage for the first time on Saturday. For many Sooners, this will be their second, third or maybe even fourth trip. That counts for something.