August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our updated Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.
Previous entries: No. 6 Clemson, No. 7 Oklahoma State, No. 8 Penn State, No. 9 Washington, No. 10 Auburn, No. 11 LSU, No. 12 Michigan, No. 13 Stanford, No. 14 Louisville, No. 15 Wisconsin, No. 16 Georgia, No. 17 Florida, No. 18 South Florida, No. 19 Kansas State, No. 20 Texas, No. 21 Miami, No. 22 Notre Dame, No. 23 Northwestern, No. 24 Washington State, No. 25 North Carolina
No. 5 OKLAHOMA
2016 record: 11-2
Returning starters: 9 offense, 7 defense
Biggest non-conference game: Sept. 9 vs. Ohio State
Biggest conference game: Nov. 4 vs. Oklahoma State
Key returning player: QB Baker Mayfield
Key departed player: WR Dede Westbrook
Three things to know about Oklahoma
• When you have an explosive offense that returns nine of 11 starters, you’re typically in good shape. And don’t get us wrong, Oklahoma is in good shape. But this isn’t a scenario where the Sooners are replacing a tight end with 30 catches and an offensive lineman.
The two departed starters that Oklahoma needs to find replacements for are running back Samaje Perine and wide receiver Dede Westbrook, two of the best skill position players in the country in 2016.
Perine ran for 1,060 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016 while Westbrook was a Heisman finalist and had 80 catches for 1,524 yards and 17 touchdowns. That’s a ton of production to replace.
But wait, there’s more. RB Joe Mixon wasn’t classified as a starter a year ago but ended up leading Oklahoma in rushing with 1,274 yards and was the Sooners’ second-leading receiver with 37 catches for 538 yards. He could be the man the Sooner offense misses more than anyone because of his ability in both facets of the offense.
The good news with the running game is that Abdul Adams returns and Rodney Anderson is healthy. When Perine was hurt and Mixon was suspended vs. Iowa State, Adams had eight carries for 54 yards. The team’s leading rusher that game was Dimitri Flowers, who had 22 carries for 115 yards. He’s back too.
It’s hard to top Mixon and Perine, but Oklahoma should be able to run the ball effectively in 2017.
“Obviously, [Anderson’s] missed the last two years because of injuries, but he’s had to fight through a ton,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said at Big 12 media day. “He’s a great, great worker. He stacks up there physically as good as anybody we’ve had at that position, including Joe and Samaje. We know he’s got to prove it on the field. Abdul Adams played some for us as a third back last year, played well when he did. Had a great spring, was one of our most-improved players. I think he’ll do well in the mix, as well as Marcelius Sutton, a junior college player we signed, went through spring ball with us. He’s a little bit smaller, got a little bit of explosiveness to him.”
There are many more question marks in the receiving corps. WR Nick Basquine was the team’s leading returning wide receiver but he’s out for the season with an achilles injury. That puts more pressure on tight end Mark Andrews and Kentucky transfer Jeff Badet.
Andrews can be a dynamic receiving option, though some consistency is necessary. He had 31 catches for 489 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago. Doubling that output is probably necessary. Badet was Kentucky’s leading receiver in 2016 with 31 catches for 670 yards and four scores. With an Oklahoma passing attack that is far greater in quantity and quality than Kentucky’s, Badet should see his stats improve too.
But who else is going to catch the ball? Junior college transfer Marquise Brown will be needed. As will senior Jeffery Mead, who had 10 catches in 2016.
• The good news is Mayfield is back, and he’s going to carry an even bigger offensive load in 2017. The Heisman finalist was 254-358 passing for 3,965 yards, 40 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also added eight rushing touchdowns, though we’ll note that he should probably work on his elusiveness if his escape from Fayetteville police was any indication.
He’s tasked with leading an offense that’s averaged over 40 points a game for the past two seasons. With Mayfield at quarterback and now-head coach Riley coordinating the offense last season, Oklahoma averaged nearly 44 points a game (up from 43.5 in 2015) and 555 yards a game, up 25 yards from a year ago. It seems unrealistic to expect OU’s offensive production to increase again, but similar numbers aren’t too farfetched.
“I think he’s gotten more comfortable as a quarterback within our system, more comfortable as a quarterback with our current players, and obviously having great quarterback play in big time games is always such a huge part of it,” Riley said at Big 12 media days. “So, yeah, we’re thrilled about his progress. I think he really took some strides this spring. We’ve really tried to focus on, not only with him but with our whole team, on ways we can improve kind of this process right now so that we play better early in the season.
“We felt like the last two years that, at the end of the season, we were playing as good as anybody else in the country. We’ve got to do a better job so we hit our stride a little bit earlier, him included.”
• Let’s catapult off Riley’s point about the beginning of the year. While the Week 2 game at Ohio State has nothing to do with the Big 12, the Sooners can’t afford a big loss to the Buckeyes in terms of the College Football Playoff.
Even though Oklahoma had the look of a potential playoff team at the end of 2016 by beating three-straight ranked teams by three scores or more, losses to Houston and Ohio State by a combined 31 points took the wind out of any potential playoff sail in the first three weeks of the season. Another 21-point loss to Ohio State this year digs another big hole.
Oklahoma is also staring at the possibility of two games vs. in-state rival Oklahoma State in the span of five weeks. The two teams meet on Nov. 4, a game that will likely decide the regular season Big 12 championship. And then they could meet again on Dec. 2 in the reincarnated Big 12 title game.
A big part of avoiding a slow start would be an improved defense. The OU defense gave up 22 points per game in 2015 and that total skyrocketed to nearly 29 points a game. That’s what happens when you give up 0.7 yards per play or more. Yeah, the Big 12 has a lot of offense, but it doesn’t have that much.
There’s also the factor of any adjustment from former coach Bob Stoops to Riley. Given the transition process was as publicly seamless as can be, we don’t think there will be.
“I’ve learned a lot from [Stoops],” Riley said. “One of the most impressive things to me was he always had a great sense, I thought, for the pulse of the team, which I think is so important for the head coach. You’re going to have decisions that come up that you’ve got to make that could go either way. You’ve got to have an understanding of where the team is and what’s best for the team in that current situation.
“I thought there were times when, even as a staff, we didn’t totally agree with him, but now looking back on it, he just had a unique sense of that. It’s a little difficult to explain, but in the moment, you could really see it. So had some great conversations with him about that and kind of how he developed that and kept tabs on it. He was, in my opinion, one of the best to ever do it.”
Oklahoma should be one of the best teams in the country again this season. The Sooners may have the most questions of any serious CFP contender, but with Mayfield back and the talent around him the Big 12 has a couple of shots at getting its second playoff berth.
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