At the beginning of the year, Saturday's game between Oklahoma and Baylor was supposed to be a de facto elimination game for the College Football Playoff and the Big 12 championship. While it's not the same top-five matchup most expected it to be, it still has implications on the Big 12 championship and for Baylor, playoff chances.
For Oklahoma, it's the Sooners' last chance to prove themselves against a quality opponent and possibly move into the top-10 of the playoff rankings to guarantee an automatic berth in one of the Big Six bowls.
It's not an impossible thing to imagine. After all, the Sooners kind of fell into a berth in the Sugar Bowl thanks to a Bedlam win and a few other moves a year ago. If Oklahoma finishes 10-2, with two losses by a combined five points to TCU and Kansas State, it will be hard to not have them in the top 10 at the end of the season.
But this is a moot discussion if the Sooners don't take down Baylor on Saturday. Last year's loss in Waco was ugly and with how the OU secondary has struggled at times this year, a win is no guaranteed thing.
A win paves the way for a strong finish for a second consecutive season. A loss means the Sooners, once thought as the best team in the country, are really no better than fourth-best in their own conference.
Three questions for Oklahoma
1. Can the secondary keep the Baylor receivers in check?
Baylor boasts the deepest wide receiver group in the country, and I don't think it's very close. There are just so many athletes spread all over the field and plenty more waiting on the sidelines. It's a never-ending wave of speed and athleticism, not to mention great hands. The OU secondary is going to be tested, but if you look to just last year, the group didn't do an awful job against them. Baylor threw for just 204 yards and only three receivers caught passes. However, this year's group of receivers for Baylor is much better top to bottom. Still, the Sooners did some good things on defense last year in Waco and they'll need to draw on that success to slow down the Bears on Saturday.
2. Will the Sooners run the ball effectively again?
It's completely unreasonable to expect the Sooners to run for 510 yards again (spoiler alert: ain't gonna happen), but Oklahoma will have to do better than the 87 yards they managed a year ago. The OU ground game, after struggling against TCU and Texas, is on the up and up once again. Last week's ground assault followed a 198 yard performance against Kansas State. The offensive line is healthy and is playing with confidence and the Sooners may (finally) get Keith Ford back from a broken leg (more on that below). Oklahoma is 65-1 under Bob Stoops when running for at least 200 yards and has won 37 straight when accomplishing that feat. That's clearly a magic number for the Sooners, but it won't be easy to do against a stout Baylor front that's giving up 100 yards per game on the ground. However, the scheme OU came out with against Iowa State was brilliant, and another plan like that could get the Sooners where they want to go.
3. Will Oklahoma have a full, healthy arsenal of players?
The Sooners are getting back to completely healthy, as defensive end Charles Walker saw action on Saturday for the first time since the Tulsa game, but two big pieces remain up in the air. Sterling Shepard had a groin injury right out of the gate at Iowa State and missed almost the entire game. Stoops said he is a game-time decision but has seemed optimistic about Shepard's chances of playing. If he can't go, that would be a huge blow to the Oklahoma offense and would allow Baylor to focus almost exclusively on stopping the run. Keith Ford looked like he might return against Iowa State, but ended up not playing. Another week may have been what he needed to make his return, but it's anyone's guess at this point. If he can play, it'd be a nice boost to an already very good OU run game.
Three players to watch for Baylor
1. QB Bryce Petty- 2,034 passing yards, 54.8 comp. %, 20 touchdowns, 3 INTs
Petty has been very good once again, but with his arsenal of offensive weapons, you'd have to be a really bad quarterback to not be good. However, Petty hasn't been amazing this year. His completion percentage is not very good, and his 46.2 completion percentage on third downs is dead last in the Big 12. He doesn't fare well under pressure, but will throw for 10 touchdowns if he gets time to find open receivers.
2. WR KD Cannon- 36 receptions, 714 yards, six touchdowns
Cannon is a true freshman and has already become the Bears' go-to receiver. He has terrific speed, which is exactly what Art Briles looks for in his receivers. Zach Sanchez and Julian Wilson both have great straight-line speed and that's going to be put to the test by Cannon. The safeties can't be caught looking in the backfield or else Cannon is just going to take the top off the defense time and time again.
3. DE Shawn Oakman- 31 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, 6 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries
Oakman is one of the biggest human beings I've ever seen in my life. At 6-foot-9, 280 pounds, Oakman has the size and strength to wreck havoc on an offensive line. He's also very athletic, which makes him just an incredible specimen. Thankfully for the Sooners, they have a pair of big, athletic tackles themselves in Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams and they're going to be put to the test, big time.
Key Matchup: Baylor wide receivers vs. Oklahoma secondary
This has been mentioned several times already in this preview, but it's so obviously the biggest key to this game, it's worth mentioning time and again. Last year, the Bears gashed OU on the ground, but there were still plenty of timely mistakes by the secondary that led to touchdowns for the Bears. The Sooners have talent in the secondary, but it all comes down to discipline and execution. Baylor doesn't try to do a lot of fancy things, but what they do is very difficult to defend because a lot of it is based on their receivers being faster than your cornerbacks and safeties. Oklahoma had a pretty good plan a year ago, and with a few tweaks, they could be able to limit the potent Baylor offense. It's a huge challenge and the Sooners say they're ready for it. We'll see.
Prediction: Baylor 37, Oklahoma 28
It's hard to see the Sooners holding down Baylor enough to get the win on Saturday. The secondary hasn't been consistent enough for me to put faith in them, and if the Sooners don't pressure the quarterback, it will be a long day. The OU offense will move the ball, but still struggle on third downs and it will cost them.