Oklahoma has the nation’s best offense. This is according to our eyeballs and Brian Fremeau’s efficiency rankings for Football Outsiders. Oklahoma also has, again per Fremeau, the nation’s 61st-best defense. We contrast this with the defensive placements of the other playoff qualifiers – Clemson is No. 2, Georgia No. 4 and Alabama No. 5.
The Oklahoma argument – the legendary rascal Barry Switzer, three times a national champ with the Sooners, made this point in an interview with yours truly, the fruits of which will be available anon – is that it plays in the Big 12, where the offenses are so sleek that nobody stops anybody. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, whose big brother Bob was the Sooners’ head coach as recently as Memorial Day 2017, made it in his media session here Thursday.
“The spread offenses kind of took over our league,” Mike Stoops said. “The pace of games is different … It's a unique league. The quarterbacks and the offensive coordinators do a great job really scheming week to week and trying to pick at your weaknesses. I would imagine Georgia's had three or four weeks to do that.”
On Sept. 9 – the same night Georgia won 20-19 in South Bend – Oklahoma beat No. 2 Ohio State 31-16 in Columbus. That’s the best road win on any playoff qualifier’s worksheet, and it couldn’t have come without defense being played. Then the Sooners moved into Big 12 play, and four of their next six opponents scored 35 or more points: Baylor had 41, Iowa State 38 in OU’s only loss, Kansas State 35 and Oklahoma State 52. In the latter game, the losing Cowboys mustered 662 yards.
Back to the part about everybody in the Big 12 having a great offense: Fremeau’s rankings suggest that it isn’t so. Oklahoma State is No. 2 in offensive efficiency, but the next-highest Big 12 team is West Virginia at No. 28. Total offense is a tad different – the league has four of the top 19 in that category – but that’s a stat that counts yards, and how many yards you gain can be a function of how fast you play and how many possessions you get.
Even in a no-defense conference, Oklahoma’s defense was nothing special – fourth in total defense, sixth in rushing defense, fourth in pass defense efficiency. The Sooners scored 38 or more points in winning their final seven games; had they been held to 30 points each time, they’d have lost three of those.
Stoops again: “Maybe towards the middle part of the year we got a little lapse in who we are and didn't do a lot of the little things that you need to do to play at this level that we're expected to play at and we should play at. That was disheartening to all of us. That's not our style here at Oklahoma to rely on our offense and (not) do our part defensively, and that really hurts our pride.”
Then: “We're fully capable of playing at a very high level. There are some unique challenges in our league that didn't present itself throughout other leagues, but still it got down to our disciplines. Not being complacent. Complacency will ruin your team, and that's something that sometimes, if you're not pushed, that can happen to players. And that's something we had to really push our players.”
Then: “We started going better-on-better (in practice) throughout the course of the year with our offense and the challenges they present every time they step on the field. So that helped us certainly get better.”
The hope in Norman is that the apparent defensive improvement shown over the final four games – only West Virginia scored more than 20 points, and TCU had to settle for 20 and then 17 in the Big 12 title game – wasn’t a trick of the light. And maybe Mike Stoops has learned a bit about his Rose Bowl opponent from his younger brother Mark, who coaches Kentucky. (Not that the Wildcats had much success. They lost to the Bulldogs 42-13.)
But color me dubious. It isn’t as if Georgia can’t score. It broke 40 points in seven of its 13 games. It’s No. 3 in offensive efficiency. There seems a better chance of it controlling the clock via the run and keeping Baker Mayfield off the field than of Mayfield and Co. hanging half a hundred – to borrow a famous Switzer phrase – on the Bulldogs.