Is Oklahoma a Good Value for a National Championship with Jalen Hurts?

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Posted in: College Football

College Football - Oklahoma Sooners

I mentioned when discussing Jalen Hurts’ transfer situation how weird it was that Oklahoma wasn’t being considered one of the betting favorites.

This is a team that’s always in the thick of playoff conversation, who has made the dance more than any other team aside from Alabama and Clemson. And the former Alabama QB would have a great chance of taking their starting spot with Kyler Murray turning pro.

And eventually, Hurts did end up picking the Sooners, putting him in a great position to earn another trip to the final four of college football. But is Oklahoma built to do more than that? Are they good enough with Hurts to break the dominance of the Tigers and Tide?

The Sooners currently have odds placed at +1000 by Bovada. That’s behind not only Clemson (+165) and Alabama (+230), but also Georgia and Ohio State (both +800).

So how good a value pick are they where they stand? Is Texas ready to catch them in the Big 12? And is Hurts going to have as big of an impact as everyone seems to think?

There’s a lot of questions to answer about this Oklahoma team, most of them on the defensive side of the ball. But I hope today to give you all a good idea of just how far the Sooners can go.

Who’s Leaving

Besides the obvious subtraction of Murray, the Sooners did lose some other key pieces from their 2018 squad.

Marquise “Hollywood” Brown is easily the best of the rest. Antonio Brown’s cousin can stretch the field much like his wide receiving kin. He should be a burner at the next level and will be sorely missed at Oklahoma. There wasn’t a single Big 12 DB he couldn’t torch, and he also opened a lot of room for other targets.

Another potential star they will miss is Rodney Anderson out of the backfield. He went over 1,100 yards as a sophomore in 2017 but was hurt most of this season with a knee injury. With all the depth the Sooners have at RB, it seemed logical for him to move on to the draft.

The biggest loss for me when I look at the Sooners is the four offensive linemen. LT Bobby Evans had started all 28 games for the Sooners the past two years. Ben Powers lived up to his name at LG and will be playing on Sundays now. Cody Ford and Dru Samia might even be harder to replace on the right side.

This was the group that won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best O-line last year. That’s a tough act for replacements to follow.

As far as the defense goes, linebacker and second-leading tackler Curtis Bolton is gone. He had 4.5 sacks in 2018.

So overall, there’s not an excruciating amount of turnover. The offensive line is the only spot that should be of concern. But luckily for the Sooners, they might fair well with the replacements they have waiting in the wings.

Who’s Coming Back?

The short answer to this one: A lot of valuable players.

Where to even begin? How about at receiver?

Hurts’ wideouts are well established, with CeeDee Lamb leading the way. He compiled 1,158 yards and a team-high 11 touchdowns as a sophomore. He actually had more yards-per-catch than Brown (17.8) and has quality size at 6’2”.

In fact, there’s a lot of size in this receiving corp. Lee Morris, who had an eye-popping 21.8 yards a catch (457 overall) in 2018, is also 6’2”. And a fellow TE, Grant Calcaterra, is another big, athletic target at 6’4”.

Both of them will technically be tight ends. But they’ll be used more in the slot for Lincoln Riley’s offense. Their skillsets certainly are good enough to split them out from the O-line.

If there’s a position I’m equally impressed with, it’s running back. Trey Sermon (5.8 YPC, 13 touchdowns) is a superstar in the making, a lethal combination of acceleration and power at 224 lbs.

And he wasn’t even the leading RB on his own team last year. That was Kennedy Brooks, who had over 1,000 yards and an other-worldly 8.9 YPC.

Yes, a lot of that ground success came with defenses scared of the downfield passing attack. But with Hurts replacing Murray, there won’t be much of a drop-off in the aerial attack. Defenses will still have to pick their poison.

And as for the depletion of the offensive line?

Well, the Sooners have compiled seven blue-chip prospects there over the 2017 and 2018 recruiting cycles. That includes five-star 2018 tackle and the No. 1 recruit in the state of Oklahoma, Brey Walker.

This will be a bit of a raw group aside from center Creed Humphrey. But he was a second-team All-Big 12 pick as a freshman. So who’s to say these other O-line members won’t blend right in too? Humphrey’s rating on 24/7 Sports was the lowest out of the seven recruits.

Even if they are up to the task right out of the gate, the defense is what concerns people. While the offense was ranked first in the nation, the efficiency of the defense was ranked 89th. Being 101st in scoring D will likely never get them a title no matter how stacked the offense is.
But the coaching and inexperience was a major concern last year. Both of those will hopefully be cleared up in 2019.

There’s some hope on this side of the ball though. While the Big 12 doesn’t have too many top-ranked defenses, it’s not like the Sooners didn’t recruit well enough on this side of the ball. They’ve added three top-20 CBs, a top-12 safety, four top-20 DEs, a top-5 DT, and three top-20 LBs in the past two classes.

If the coaching changes can improve player development at all, there’s no reason why there can’t be a dramatic improvement by this defense. Eight of their top nine tacklers and seven of their top eight sack-getters are returning.

Lastly, the biggest returnee may not be on the field at all.

Riley deciding to stay put at head coach and not move on to the NFL will once again make the Oklahoma offense the most intimidating in the country.

The Path to the Playoff

I’ll break down if the Sooners can match up against the best teams from around the country. But first, it’s worth looking at how close the rest of their conference is to them.

The Big 12 had seven bowl-eligible teams last year. Very few of those will contend with Oklahoma for the conference title. But there are enough speed-bumps in their schedule to impede their road to the College Football Playoff.

That includes the scrappy Iowa State Cyclones, who are becoming a true contender in the conference thanks to coach Matt Campbell. They beat Oklahoma in 2017 and had the second-best defense in the conference last year.

The Sooners will still out-talent them on nearly every level. But there’s rarely an easy “W” against them.

Neither is any versus Oklahoma State.

They were only 7-6 last season, having some of the most inconsistent play in the country. But this team seems to always take things to the wire in offensive shootouts. They not only beat Texas, Missouri, West Virginia, and Boise State in 2018. They also lost to Oklahoma by just one point.

This team is usually consistent in the nine or 10-win neighborhood. As long as Mike Gundy is still leading them, they’re always at least a dark horse.

As is West Virginia now that they have Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall there. He was the next-in-line for a couple years in Norman. But things get tiring being placed behind three different graduate transfers in separate years.

Now he’ll replace Will Grier in an offense that will lose several key pieces offensively. But expect the Mountaineer defense to take another step forward this year under new coach Neal Brown.

Though these teams will be challenges for Oklahoma, the main antagonist is the same as always: Texas. And they’re as strong as they’ve been since their BCS finalist team of 2009.

Their QB, Sam Ehlinger, is a legitimate Heisman candidate. Collin Johnson at wide receiver is a solid No. 1 target for him. And after 10 wins this season, capped off by a Sugar Bowl win, Tom Herman has given this team all sorts of momentum heading into next season.

Also along Oklahoma’s path to the playoffs will be a resurgent UCLA team they’ll have to visit. Dana Holgorsen’s move to Houston will also enliven their opening week matchup with the Cougars. But I don’t envision either of those teams quite being up to par with the Sooners just yet.

They need way better defensive personnel to withstand such an onslaught from Riley.

How Do They Stack Up Against the Best?

As I said before, Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio State all have better odds to win the championship next season. And Texas, Michigan, and even Florida are all going to be competitive right behind the Sooners.

But I think the top-five is separated from the rest for now. And while it’s hard to admit, Clemson and Alabama still look like the best teams in the country. That may be to the collective groans of many.

In terms of the gap between Alabama and Oklahoma this year, it was fairly wide. So you could say the same about Clemson and the Sooners. But Alabama’s path to the playoff will be as treacherous as ever in 2019 and Clemson has a ton of reloading to do with non-skill players.

Georgia lost several great underclassmen as well. But they were mostly at positions where they could afford to lose them. Ohio State will once again be similar statistically on offense to Oklahoma. And their defensive line at least brings some bright spots to that side of the ball too.

But the QB position doesn’t look much different for the Sooners next year. Their O-line will be almost as good, just less experienced. And most of their WRs and RBs are back after an incredible 2018 output. If the defense takes a step forward—as if there’s any other choice—then this will be a better team in 2019.

I know Murray can’t be replaced. But I said that about Baker Mayfield too. People can’t understate how good this Riley-Hurts combo will be.

So Are They a Good Value?

From a talent standpoint, I’d put them right alongside Georgia or Ohio State. And I think they have better leadership on the field than the first school and an easier path than both of them.

So they’re at least in a better situation than the teams at +800.

But it’s hard to place them over Alabama and Clemson. Yes, those programs have a lot of replacing to do, especially on the lines. But they’ve done it so many times before, and constantly rake in top-100 recruits. They’re no slackers in developing them either.

I can’t in good conscious pick Oklahoma over either of them. But I still believe the Sooners are the 3rd-best team in college football. Their +1000 odds are a great number for anyone who is looking for an alternative to the “Big Two”.

I expect their defense, thanks to coaching, depth, and development, to be at least 20 spots higher in efficiency next year.

And their offense, with a Heisman candidate once again at QB, will move no more than a couple spots back in overall offensive numbers. They have too many valuable returners and great offensive minds to not be elite.

They won’t be my national champion pick come August. But I expect them to make a playoff run despite Texas’s surge. And out of every team with listed odds, their value is certainly the best.

The Odds: Oklahoma Sooners (+1000)

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