Reasons behind Oklahoma's 1-2 start (and whether it can still win the Big 12)
Before the 2016 college football season began, many observers had picked the Oklahoma Sooners as not only the winner of the Big 12, but also as a possible national championship contender. Now through three weeks of play, the Sooners have two losses and have effectively been eliminated from College Football Playoff contention.
So what exactly has turned this team from a title contender to one that may not even take its conference title? Let’s take a look at the biggest issue on each side of the ball for the Sooners:
Offense: Receivers — not Baker Mayfield — are to blame for passing-game woes
On the surface, it may look like Oklahoma’s passing offense is doing fine. Through three games QB Baker Mayfield is completing more than 65 percent of his passes for 800 yards and seven touchdowns to just two interceptions. His season grade of 75.0 ranks 19th in the country among quarterbacks — not nearly as good as his No. 1 ranking among returning QBs from 2015, but still very good. He is still capable of making big-time plays in the passing game, and has made just two turnover-worthy throws so far this season. (Check out his passing stats below.)
But where the bigger issue lies right now is with the receivers. It was common sense to think that the Sooners’ passing offense would slow down a bit with the loss of star WR Sterling Shepard to the NFL. He was able to separate so quickly and was a perfect safety valve for that offense — a guy who would always come through when they needed a big catch. Last year Mayfield averaged just 2.46 seconds before throwing the ball to Shepard, and 3.09 seconds throwing to anyone else. It was clear that Shepard was the man that Mayfield went to when he needed a quick completion, and Shepard was able to get open consistently.
This year, nobody on the Sooners’ offense is able to get open as quickly, and that’s causing Mayfield and the offense to suffer. On non-screen passes, Mayfield is averaging a ridiculous 3.43 seconds before the throw (this includes attempts, sacks or scrambles). Overall, his 3.12 seconds to throw average is the highest among qualified quarterbacks in the entire NCAA. He’s a full 0.6 seconds above the average among said qualified quarterbacks. That may not seem like a big number, but if you expand it out with his number of dropbacks, Mayfield has spent a full minute more in the pocket than the average NCAA quarterback through three games. Football is a game of seconds, and having your quarterback spend that much more time in the pocket is a recipe for disaster.
It is fair to place some of this blame on Mayfield, as he looks a bit more hesitant to pull the trigger on throws this year than he did last year. But overall, the majority of this blame falls on the receivers for being unable to get open. The play below is an example of this. Mayfield makes all his reads, finds nobody open in almost five seconds of looking and then has to escape the pocket as it starts to collapses.
This particular throw was completed, thanks to running back Samaje Perine finding a hole in the defense following Mayfield’s scramble, but it represents the bigger problem. Mayfield can’t check down or scramble every play. This offense was so effective last year because it was able to move the ball downfield in big chunks quickly, which also opened up the run game as teams worked to defend that. In their two losses this year, it seemed that Houston and Ohio State were willing to play to defend the run first, and trust that their secondary could beat Oklahoma’s receivers without much extra help. It worked, as they held Perine to just 91 yards rushing on 23 carries in those two games combined.
The one saving grace for this offense has been RB Joe Mixon, who has gained 335 yards on just 35 touches so far this season. It might be worthwhile for the Sooners to start trying to run their offense around Mixon now, as it seems he’s ready to take on a starring role for this team.
Defense: Secondary woes costing the Sooners
On the other side of the football, the Sooners’ secondary is having a very tough time covering receivers. All but two of the 10 players that have taken snaps in the secondary have a below-average grade and the two that don’t are only barely above average. The two quarterbacks that they lost to, Houston’s Greg Ward Jr. and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, have graded much better as runners than they have as passers to this point in their college careers, but both looked like stars throwing the football against Oklahoma, combining to go 37-of-56 for 473 yards and six touchdowns to zero interceptions.
No matter who is matching up against whom, the Sooners’ secondary players are getting beaten. Against Houston it was the back-shoulder throw that beat them. The back-shoulder throw is notoriously difficult to defend, but the issue with the Sooners in that game was how quickly and easily they were beaten off the line. That meant they had to scramble and go full-on to catch up to the Cougars’ receivers. So when that receiver stopped and turned around for the pass, the Sooner defender would run right past him and leave him wide open. This was seen frequently in this game, as defensive backs like Will Johnson and Dakota Austin were beaten multiple times.
Against Ohio State it was more of the same thing. Barrett only threw 19 aimed passes, but completed 14 of those, and it seemed every time his receiver had beaten his man in coverage. Barrett rarely had to make a tough throw because his receivers were so open.
Now first and foremost, that’s an incredible catch by Ohio State’s Noah Brown. But watch Brown’s route at the top of the screen. He makes one fake step inside and then fades towards the corner, and that’s all it takes to completely blow by CB Michiah Quick. After that cut is made, Brown has an easy two steps on Quick. The only reason he has to make such a circus catch is because Barrett is late on the throw and underthrows him. But make no mistake, this touchdown happened because Quick was completely faked out by Brown’s inside step and beaten badly.
The above TD catch from Brown came against Jordan Thomas, Oklahoma’s star corner. He was a second team All-Big 12 player last season and a preseason All-Big 12 player this year. We weren’t quite as high on him last year, but still expected him to have a good season. He hasn’t been bad by any means, but he’s had a handful of plays like this in every game. On this play he gets good contact on Brown initially, but then seems to anticipate a fade route coming and turns the complete wrong way. Brown cuts outside, and Thomas takes about three full steps before realizing it — and by that point he is completely beaten. These types of mistakes have cost Oklahoma, and they are the main reason that they’ve already lost two games.
Can Oklahoma turn it around and make a run at the Big 12 title?
Now this isn’t to say Oklahoma is playing very poorly. Losing to Ohio State and Houston is nothing to be ashamed of, as both are very good teams. The Sooners are still one of our highest-graded teams overall, with several players playing good football across the board. But they’re going to have to fix these issues if they are going to succeed in the Big 12 this year.
On offense that could mean getting a bit more creative and scheming more touches for Mixon. He’s shown that he can be effective running routes from the slot, and Oklahoma might be wise to try that a little bit more frequently. On defense they need their secondary to step up. The Big 12 is chalk-full of very good quarterbacks, including Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, Baylor’s Seth Russell, TCU’s Kenny Hill, and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes. If they are going to survive against these teams, they can’t afford mishaps like the ones shown above.
While it’s possible that the Big 12 may no longer be fighting for a playoff spot, all the teams in the conference are competitive, and it means the Sooners will have their work cut out for them if they want to repeat as Big 12 champions.