Yahoo Sports' 2019 Top 25: No. 4 Oklahoma

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season Saturday. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.

Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska | No. 22 Iowa State | No. 21 Missouri | No. 20 Iowa | No. 19 Mississippi State | No. 18 Michigan State | No. 17 Texas A&M | No. 16 Washington | No. 15 Miami | No. 14 Utah | No. 13 Auburn | No. 12 Penn State | No. 11 Oregon | No. 10 Florida | No. 9 Notre Dame | No. 8 Texas | No. 7 Michigan | No. 6 LSU | No. 5 Ohio State

No. 4 Oklahoma

2018 record: 12-2 (8-1)

Returning starters: 4 offense, 8 defense

What can Jalen Hurts do in Lincoln Riley’s offense?

Another year, another talented transfer quarterback at Oklahoma.

The Sooners soared to impressive heights with Baker Mayfield, a Texas Tech transfer, and Kyler Murray, a Texas A&M transfer, running the offense. Both won the Heisman Trophy and led OU to the College Football Playoff.

Those are tough acts to follow. But if anyone is built for that kind of spotlight, it’s Jalen Hurts.

You probably know Hurts’ story by now. He was Alabama’s starting QB in 2016 and 2017, leading the team to the College Football Playoff title game in both seasons. In 2016, Hurts was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a true freshman, but the Tide lost 35-31 to Clemson in the national championship.

He returned as the starter in 2017 and led the Tide to the title game yet again, this time against Georgia. However, after a poor first half, Hurts was benched in favor of Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa led the Tide to a comeback victory and then beat out Hurts out for the starting role in 2018.

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After backing up Tagovailoa in 2018, Hurts looked elsewhere to play his last season of college football. He visited Miami and Maryland, but landed in Norman to play for Lincoln Riley. From all indications, it has been a good fit.

Hurts, an excellent runner who has struggled at times exploiting defenses down the field, is out to prove he can sling it with the best QBs in the country. Who better to learn from than Riley, the man who tutored consecutive Heisman winners? There will be no shortage of talent around Hurts, either. Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks are one of the top running back duos in the country. CeeDee Lamb and tight end Grant Calcaterra highlight an explosive group of pass-catchers.

One cause for concern on the offense, however, is the line. This was the best unit in the country last fall, but only one starter, All-America center Creed Humphrey, is back for 2019.

Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley during an NCAA college football practice in Norman, Okla., Monday, Aug. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley has a 24-4 record in two seasons in Norman. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Can Alex Grinch save Oklahoma’s leaky defense?

To say Oklahoma’s defense struggled last year would be an understatement. The Sooners gave up an average of 33.3 points and 453.8 yards per game. Those marks ranked 101st and 114th nationally, respectively. The fact that OU reached the CFP with that kind of performance shows how prolific the offense was.

For the Sooners to take necessary moves forward, changes had to be made. It couldn’t have been easy for Riley to fire Mike Stoops, brother of longtime Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops — the man who brought Riley to Norman. But it had to be done, and Riley plucked Alex Grinch from Ohio State to run his defense. Grinch made a name for himself by revitalizing Washington State’s defense. From there, he returned to his home state and spent a year on Urban Meyer’s staff as the co-DC and safeties coach.

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The Buckeyes didn’t exactly light the world on fire defensively last fall, but Grinch got a taste of coaching at one of the top programs in the country. Now at OU, he’ll get to inject some life into a defense that really needs it.

And when your offense produces the way Oklahoma has in recent years, even a marginal improvement on defense could go a long way.

“We haven't played our best defensively consistently through the years, but in a lot of big games we've played pretty darn good,” Riley said at Big 12 Media Days. “We've got to do that more consistently to make ourselves a better team, and we feel like we've taken the steps to do that.”

On a positive note, the defense returns eight starters, and improved recruiting on that side of the ball should result in improved depth from the get-go. Middle linebacker Kenneth Murray is the unit’s top returnee. Murray, a junior with 28 career starts, tallied a whopping 155 tackles last fall.

Neville Gallimore, Kenneth Mann and Ronnie Perkins are the names to know on the defensive line. The secondary has plenty of experience, too. But when you give up 294 passing yards per game — the worst mark in the nation — and have a new coordinator in place, it’s safe to assume starting positions are up for grabs.

“We definitely expect our defense to be better. I don't think there is any doubt. That's why we have recruited as hard as we have. That's why we made the changes on the coaching staff that we've made,” Riley said. “We feel like there is going to be positive results behind that. What we have been able to see behind the scenes up to this point gets you encouraged and excited that both those things will happen.”

NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 22: Kenneth Murray #9 of the Oklahoma Sooners celebrates after defeating the Army West Point Black Knights at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on September 22, 2018 in Norman, Oklahoma.  (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)
Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray (No. 9) put up a whopping 155 tackles in 2018. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

Where Oklahoma fits in the CFP picture

The transition from Stoops to Riley has gone as well as anybody could have hoped. The Sooners were coming off back-to-back Big 12 titles (plus a CFP semifinal appearance in 2015) when Stoops surprisingly announced his retirement in the summer of 2016. Riley has kept the winning ways alive with two more Big 12 championships.

The Sooners have also reached the CFP in both of Riley’s seasons as head coach, but it has been the same result both times. In 2017, OU lost a heartbreaker to Georgia, 54-48 in double-overtime, in a semifinal. Last year, it was a 45-34 loss to Alabama that was not as close as the final score may indicate.

Entering 2019, there are no Mayfield or Murray heroics to rely on. On top of that, Texas continues to improve and is nipping at OU’s heels. So what does Oklahoma need to do to take that next step?

When you allow 99 points in your last two CFP games, it obviously starts with defense. But Riley said at Big 12 Media Days the program’s recent success — and the expectations that come with it — help maintain a certain level of excellence.

“I think the expectations and standard of Oklahoma football are so high that it almost helps a little bit in a funny way. It almost helps you refocus in that, yeah, the last four were great, but what about the fifth one? That's the mindset around the program,” Riley said.

“I think we've got a good culture. I think our guys understand and have a healthy respect for how difficult each and every championship has been, each and every win has been. We have had to play our tails off and coach our tails off to get it done, and that's how it should be in the Big 12 and to make another run will be just as difficult if not more difficult and it will take everything we have.”

Biggest game: vs. Texas (Oct. 12)

The Red River Rivalry is one of the best rivalries in college football. Last year, Texas pulled off the upset over the Sooners during the regular season, but OU got the last laugh by knocking off the Longhorns in a Big 12 title game rematch. Texas, entering the season ranked in the top 10, won’t be able to play that underdog role anymore. It should be another excellent battle between the Big 12’s top two teams.

Impact player

TE Grant Calcaterra

With the Oklahoma offense losing leading receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, CeeDee Lamb should be the top target for Jalen Hurts. But don’t sleep on Grant Calcaterra. Calcaterra registered 26 catches for 396 yards and six touchdowns last fall as a sophomore. He should be in line for an even bigger role and will be relied upon heavily in the red zone.

Biggest question mark

From Eddie Radosevich of Rivals’ Where did the defense go? It's not a question that exactly came out of nowhere. This one has been building. And last season it finally erupted. They hit rock-bottom finishing 101st in scoring defense and 120th in turnovers gained. Even worse were the 4,116 yards allowed through the air, leaving the Sooners dead last nationally (129th) in passing yards allowed.

That’s unfathomable at any program, let alone a blue-blood like Oklahoma responsible for three CFP appearances in the last four years and four straight Big 12 conference titles. Historic offenses and a pair of Heisman winners certainly helped cure those defensive ills.

Alex Grinch arrives in a similar position as Lincoln Riley inherited in 2015. Restore and revitalize. Since his arrival in January, Grinch has preached #SpeedD. But talk can only go so far, the next step is showing and doing.

On the offensive side of the ball, Bill Bedenbaugh is tasked with replacing four starters from a Joe Moore Award offensive line. The return of Creed Humphrey and addition of Virginia grad transfer R.J. Proctor offer a calming influence for a group that lacks any notable playing experience.

And, oh yeah, there's that whole Jalen Hurts storyline. You may have heard.

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 01: Oklahoma Sooners center Creed Humphrey (#56) drops back to block during the Big 12 Championship game between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Texas Longhorns on December 1, 2018 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Center Creed Humphrey (No. 56) leads a new-look Oklahoma offensive line. (Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sooner Scoop’s breakout player

OLB Jalen Redmond

The intrigue surrounding Jalen Redmond only grew during his time away from the game last season. One of the prize recruits in Oklahoma's 2018 signing class, he appeared in only three games a year ago while battling a scary blood clot situation. Simply put: Now that he's medically cleared, Redmond is expected to be a true difference maker on a team that has been lacking playmakers on that side of the ball.

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Top 2020 NFL draft prospect

WR CeeDee Lamb

From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: We’re frankly a bit shocked Lamb hasn’t received more national love, but it’s coming. When you watch the acrobatic receiver haul in passes, it evokes memories of DeAndre Hopkins. (Others have compared him to Odell Beckham Jr., too.) Yes, Lamb is that good, and we don’t think the Sooners losing “Hollywood” Brown is going to change anything with him. Expect Oklahoma to funnel its passing game through Lamb, even if building a rapport with new QB Jalen Hurts could take a little time.

Lamb might not be all that big (6-foot-2, 191 pounds) or possess blurry speed by WR standards. But he’s an advanced route craftsman and is exceptional at making plays downfield, timing his leaps, possessing great hands and displaying excellent competitiveness to deliver chunk plays. We love his quick feet, his natural separation ability and his underrated toughness.

Although Lamb could diversify his role some and rarely has shown the need to beat press coverage, there’s so much to like here. We’d be shocked if he’s not a first-round pick barring some disastrous turn.

Fantasy sleeper

WR Nick Basquine

It’s been a long road for Nick Basquine. Basquine was granted a sixth year of eligibility due to two Achilles tendon tears — one in 2015 and another in 2017. He returned to the Sooners last fall, but had only seven catches for 134 yards. Basquine, who had 20 catches back in 2016, is expected to be in the mix for a starting role and could prove to be a reliable option for Hurts.

Over/under projection

Over 10.5

Oklahoma should win both of its notable non-conference games — Houston and UCLA — fairly easily. In Big 12 play, OU drew Iowa State and TCU at home. Other than the trip to Dallas to play Texas, the trickiest games on the schedule could be November trips to Baylor and Oklahoma State. But if Hurts plays well and the defense improves, it’s hard not to pick the over here.

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