There’s excitement in the air around these parts as both OU and OSU are in the midst of incredible football seasons, and the Sooners face a matchup with undefeated Baylor this Saturday that has drawn the attention of ESPN’s College Gameday.
This game has humongous implications on the College Football Playoff picture. No. 12 Oklahoma will need to defeat No. 6 Baylor, then go on to take down No. 15 TCU and No. 8 Oklahoma State in the following weeks. The feat of taking down three top-15 teams in consecutive weeks will be tough, but definitely not insurmountable.
All of the potential playoff talk is fun, but first thing’s first: the Sooners (8-1, 5-1) will need to take down the Bears (8-0, 5-0) inside of McLane Stadium, which happens to be where Baylor holds an FBS best 20-game winning streak. Waco will provide a rowdy environment that which be filled with 45,000 angry Baylor fans who’ll each be wearing all black attire. Those same fans still hold a chip on their shoulder since the Bears were left on the outside looking in of last year’s final four.
Baylor head coach Art Briles knows this game presents a possible speed bump in the Bears’ quest for an undefeated season, and while talking about his preparation for the game he compared the matchup to a battle.
"I just think General Patton comes to mind, I don't know why, I guess because he was a pretty good general, and I would guess when he made his decisions to help us win battles and win wars and keep our troops protected that he might have looked at what happened 18 months earlier and what the outcome was,” Briles said. “What we look at is what we've done prior to this. We've been in a bunch of big games since 2010, really, and we've done pretty well in our share of them. You kind of look at past failures and productions, and try to pull on the productions more than the other."
Leading Briles’ troops will be true freshman quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who was forced into the starting role after starter Seth Russell went down with a neck injury. In Stidham’s lone start since taking the reins, the true freshman threw for 419 yards and three touchdowns.
Not only did the young gun slinger lead his team to a 31-24 win over Kansas State, but Stidham was able to do it with confidence from within and confidence from his head coach. The Bears went for it on fourth down on three separate occasions, converting through the air on all three while one ended with a touchdown.
"We went in unscathed and remain unscathed [at Kansas State]. If you're looking for somebody that's fearful as a coach or as a team, you're not going to find in on University Parks Drive. That's not happening,” Briles said. “We didn’t tee it off to get second, and we're not going to wait for the other team to make a mistake. We're going to set the tone, we're going to play hard, we're going to play fast, and we're going to play fearless. If they're on the field, that's how they're going to play, regardless of their age."
Stidham has the comfort and luxury of throwing to Coleman, and the junior wide receiver is a Heisman trophy candidate and has totaled 1,178 yards and 20 touchdowns through eight games. He only needs eight more touchdowns to break the single-season record set by Louisiana Tech’s Troy Edwards in 1998. Coleman’s a top-notch playmaker, and will be the biggest factor in Baylor’s chances of continuing the season unblemished.
KD Cannon’s the Bears’ second option from the outside with 29 receptions and four touchdowns, while Jay Lee is another reliable Bears’ receiver with 568 yards and six scores. Lee has big-play potential, and has an 87-yard touchdown reception on his resume.
Shock Linwood is another impact player Briles has on his roster. The running back has 1,046 yards (Semaje Perine has 806) on the season, and Linwood brings a great change of pace to an explosive Baylor offense that averages 665 yards per game. OU head coach Bob Stoops knows how important Baylor’s run game is to its offense.
"Well, it begins with the run game. They lead the league in rushing averaging over 300 yards a game rushing, so it all begins there. Then it's limiting the explosive big plays they get receiving the ball. That's the challenge because you get spread out and you have to commit so many people to being able to defend the run game that it leaves you a little vulnerable in your coverage,” Stoops said.
To compare the two teams’ offenses, the Sooners have put up 600 plus yards in their last three wins and have topped 50 points in all of those outings. It’s no secret this Big 12 matchup will be a shootout, but will Baylor’s offense continue to look the same with Stidham at the helm?
As good as the quarterback’s numbers were in Baylor’s win over the Wildcats, the Bears still put up 143 less yards than their average, and scored only 31 points compared to their normal rate of 57 points per contest.
By the eye test, Baylor looked just fine against Kansas State, but clearly the numbers showed something else. Am I saying the Sooners have an easy task ahead of them since they’re facing a backup quarterback? Heck no. But without Russell, the Bears’ offense was brought back down to earth a little bit.
Oklahoma will have cornerback Zack Sanchez and pass rusher Devante Bond back from injury, while defensive end Charles Tapper has really come on these last couple of weeks with five combined sacks in wins over Kansas and Iowa State. The OU defense is improving, but its biggest test of the season will come on Saturday.
As for the Baylor defense, the Bears rank 33rd in the nation in total defense, while allowing teams to score 25 points per game while putting up 388 yards. Baylor allows 164.6 rushing yards per game and has allowed two different teams to total more than 200 rushing yards, so it’ll be interesting to see if OU running back Semaje Perine gets more than five carries like he did last season when the teams played.
Baylor’s defense is an experienced group of guys, and features nine returning starters from last season’s team. Baylor has a very good plus-11 turnover margin, but the Bears struggle to defend teams in the redzone. Baylor has one of the worst redzone defenses in the conference, and allows opponents to score on 86.4 percent of their trips while not forcing any turnovers.
The biggest name on the Baylor defense is defensive end Shawn Oakman, who was selected as the Big 12’s defensive player of the year in the preseason. Oakman has eleven tackles for loss on the season to go with four sacks. Jamal Palmer and Andrew Billings are also capable of blowing up plays in the backfield, and the OU offensive line will need to continue its improvement this week if they want to keep Baker Mayfield on his feet.
"They've got some really good players there. [Shawn] Oakman comes to everyone's mind initially, but all of the other guys they have are playing well. It'll be critical that offensively for sure that we can not only run block but protect the quarterback as well."
Grant Campbell leads the Baylor linebackers and averages 8 tackles per game, while defensive back Xavien Howard leads the Big 12 with .50 interceptions per game. Baylor has playmakers spread throughout its defense, and the Sooners will need to click on all cylinders to get the job done.
Once again, this will be no easy task for the Sooners, but they definitely don’t lack confidence that they can get the job done.
"The way we've been playing you have to feel confident the way we've been executing really in all parts of the game,” Stoops said. “As much as anything, [it's] playing together as a team. Offense is moving the ball and putting pressure on the other team the way they're scoring and moving the ball. Defensively [we're] coming up with pressure and getting turnovers and a lot of good stops. We've got to play that way Saturday."
These two Big 12 titans clash on Saturday with kickoff set for 7 p.m. on ABC.