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Oklahoma Football: Previewing The Sooners And Baylor

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NORMAN, Oklahoma -

The college football world is a strange place.

For decades, Baylor has been one of the laughingstocks of college football, a perpetual doormat in the Big 12. Those days are over.

The Bears of 2013 are one of college football's best teams, undefeated at 7-0 and ranked No. 6 in the BCS standings thanks to the nation's most dynamic and dangerous offense.

The Bears really began to become relevant on the national stage when Robert Griffin III led Baylor to an upset win over Oklahoma in 2011, the Bears' first-ever win over the Sooners. That win catapulted the Bears to a 10-win season and gave Griffin Baylor's first Heisman Trophy.

Baylor coach Art Briles is the man behind the resurgence in Waco. Before Briles came to Baylor in 2008, the Bears had finished dead last in the Big 12 South Division all but two years since the Big 12's inaugural season in 1996. After a couple 4-8 seasons, Briles led Baylor to its first bowl game since 1994 in 2010. Since then, the rise has been accelerated, as Briles has wooed more and more talent to the banks of the Brazos River. A brand-new stadium is set to open next year on Baylor's campus, a major upgrade over Floyd-Casey Stadium, the Bears' home since 1950.

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All of this is not lost on Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who sees a growth in parity across all of college football thanks to more and more talented players coming out of high school.

"I don't believe there are lesser teams, and I don't believe it's been that way for quite a while," Stoops said at his weekly press conference on Monday. "They (Baylor) are right down there in the middle of Texas and they've had great football players. Art (Briles) and his staff are doing a good job of not only developing players but in recruiting them as well.

"There are more and more players out of high school for everybody. When you have to play all of these people, I believe everyone we play has talent and has good players. It's that way I believe around the country."

It's almost shocking to see the day come when Baylor would not only be higher-ranked than Oklahoma, but also be 15-point favorites. But that day is here and even still, it's hard to comprehend.

I've experienced four games (2004, 2008, 2010, 2011) between the Sooners and Bears in Waco and except for 2011, the atmosphere was terrible and by halftime, there were arguably more OU fans in the stands than Baylor ones.

That's not going to be the case on Thursday night. Baylor officials have removed the infamous tarp in the south endzone, and the game is a sellout, with everyone urged to wear black. It will be an atmosphere few ever thought could happen at Baylor, but it's here and it might be the new norm in Waco.

Three keys for Oklahoma:

1. Run the ball well and control the clock

In order to have a shot at winning this game, the Sooners have to be able to slow the game down, run the ball and control the time of possession battle. In the Bears' closest game this year, a 35-25 win over Kansas State, the Wildcats executed this plan to near-perfection. KSU rushed for 327 yards and held the ball for 39:24 of game time. Even then, it wasn't enough to upset Baylor. The Sooners will be experiencing life without Trey Millard for the first time, so establishing the run early will be more important than normal. Aaron Ripkowski is no slouch at fullback, but even still, he isn't as good as Millard. If the Sooners are able to do this, they'll give themselves a chance to win.

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2. Start fast

Not only does Oklahoma have to control the ball, but they also need to start quickly. The first quarter is huge in this game because of Baylor's high-powered offense and a jacked-up Floyd-Casey Stadium crowd. Starting fast goes both ways for the Sooners here; the offense has to put up points and the defense has to get a stop or two. If Baylor scores three or four touchdowns in the first quarter, it's not going to matter what the Oklahoma offense does. The Sooners don't have the firepower to get into a shootout with the Bears, so dictating the pace of play from the get-go and neutralizing the crowd early on will be huge.

3. Play physical defense

Baylor spreads the field like no one else in college football. It's impossible to spread the defense wide enough because doing so would expose the middle of the field to Baylor's excellent rushing attack. The Sooners are going to be forced to play a lot of man coverage on the perimeter, a scary thought given the speed of Baylor's wide receivers. OU will have to be physical on defense, with the receivers especially, but also at the line of scrimmage in an effort to shut down the Bears' run game. Being physical with the wide receivers could result in some pass interference penalties, but that's still better than giving up 70-yard passing scores every possession.

Three players to watch for Baylor:

1. Bryce Petty- QB, 69.3 completion percentage, 2,453 yards, 18 touchdowns

Petty is the nation's leader in passing efficiency, and it's not that close. The shocking thing is Petty hasn't even thrown the ball as much as you'd expect. In fact, OU's Blake Bell has attempted one more pass this year than Petty has. That stat is easy to explain, though, as Petty has barely played in the second half of games this season and his yards per completion average is a touch over 20 yards. Petty has a great arm, but the Sooners' pass defense will be far away his toughest test so far this season.

2. Lache Seastrunk- RB, 96 attempts, 869 yards, 9.1 yards/carry, 11 touchdowns

Seastrunk predicted before the season he would win the Heisman Trophy this year, and he has done nothing to make that claim sound outrageous. He hasn't even run the ball 100 times this season thanks to sitting out many second halves of BU blowouts this year. Seastrunk is one of the fastest running backs in college football, but is also a fairly powerful back. That combination makes him one of the best in the game.

3. Tevin Reese- WR, 33 receptions, 824 yards, 25 yards/reception, 8 touchdowns

It seems all Reese does is run down the field and catch deep passes for long touchdowns. That's not a bad strategy given his speed and ability and it's translated to a national-best 25 yards per reception this season. Reese is more than just a deep threat, but he consistently finds a way to get behind defenses thanks to his blazing speed. The Sooners will have to always have someone over the top to keep Reese and fellow receiver Antwan Goodley in check.

Key matchup: Oklahoma front seven vs. Baylor run game

Baylor is going to move the ball against the Oklahoma defense. That's a given. Even Alabama couldn't contain Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in their September clash. What the Sooners can't allow to happen is Baylor having its way through the air and on the ground. The Bears will have to bottle up Seastrunk and the BU run game and then hope they can get enough stops to limit the vertical passing game. Kansas State proved it is possible to do that, but the Sooners are already without run stuffers Jordan Phillips and Corey Nelson and could be without Frank Shannon as well. It's a tall order, but it must be met if the Sooners want to stay close in this one.

Prediction: Baylor 45, Oklahoma 27

The Sooners don't have the firepower to keep up with the Baylor offense, but Baylor won't run away and hide either. A couple late scores make the final a bit deceptive.

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