Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.
No. 25 South Carolina, No. 24 Utah, No. 23 West Virginia, No. 22 Central Florida, No. 21 Texas, No. 20 USC, No. 19 Florida State, No. 18 Oregon, No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 16 TCU, No. 15 Michigan, No. 14 Boise State, No. 13 Notre Dame, No. 12 Auburn, No. 11 Michigan State, No. 10 Stanford, No. 9 Miami, No. 8 Penn State
No. 7 Oklahoma
2017 record: 12-2 (8-1)
Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense
Goodbye Baker, hello Kyler
Adios, Baker Mayfield. College football’s most polarizing player is now in the NFL and with the Cleveland Browns. That should be good news for the rest of the Big 12, right?
Not so fast. Former Texas A&M QB and first-round MLB draft pick Kyler Murray is set to assume the starting role for the Sooners and we’re excited to see what he can do in coach Lincoln Riley’s offense.
Murray should provide Riley even more options in the run game. Mayfield was no slouch himself, he ran for over 500 yards before sacks are taken away from that total and had five touchdowns. Murray and running back Rodney Anderson should form a potent combination in the Oklahoma backfield.
Riley wasn’t ready to anoint Murray the starter at Big 12 media days in July, but we can safely guess what’s going to happen. Murray is OU’s QB and Austin Kendall will be the backup.
“Kyler’s athleticism jumps off the screen pretty quickly,” Riley said. “You don’t see that often in his position, but kind of like Austin, he’s a better thrower than he gets credit for. Both guys have the skill set to run it, not only when you talk about tailoring an offense to a quarterback’s strengths, sometimes you’re talking physical strengths.”
“But a lot of times it’s mental strength. What do they process, what do they like, what is their thought process, their mindset so there is a lot more that goes into it besides how well do they throw it, how fast do they run.”
If Murray is the starter he’s probably only going to be it for one season. He’s got nearly $5 million guaranteed waiting from the Oakland Athletics. He could be a very unique one-and-done of sorts in 2018, though Oklahoma won’t be in dire straits in 2019. Kendall is just a sophomore and Oklahoma has a commitment from five-star Spencer Rattler, the top dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2019.
Is the defense going to be good enough?
Oklahoma doesn’t have to have one of the nation’s defenses to compete in the Big 12. Hell, it’s probably impossible to have one of the nation’s best statistical defenses in the Big 12. That’s the point Riley made earlier in the summer when he said Georgia’s statistical ranking was inflated by playing in the SEC.
Riley was on the right track, of course. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that Oklahoma’s defense could stand to improve in 2018.
That was evident when the Sooners gave up 54 points to Georgia in the Rose Bowl. Oklahoma’s offense was unstoppable in the first half. Oklahoma’s defense couldn’t stop anyone in the second half.
“I feel like some of our best talent defensively right now is from our freshmen and sophomore classes. We are probably only going to play with maybe one, maybe two seniors this year, which is alarming in some ways,” Riley said. “But it also I think shows you we’ve been on a nice run recruiting over the last couple of years.”
“I think that is, to me, our number one issue. We have good players, don’t get me wrong. But our talent level has not been the same as some of the other defenses in the country. I think for us it’s about consistency … We’ve had some great moments defensively, but we’ve got to play like that more often.”
The biggest key in 2018 is finding some reinforcements to rush the passer. Ogbonna Okoronkwo led the team with eight sacks. He’s in the NFL. DJ Ward was third on the team with 4.5 sacks. He’s gone too.
Oklahoma had 40 sacks in 2015. The Sooners had 25 sacks in 2016 and 26 in 2017. Cracking 30 in 2018 seems like a necessary goal.
Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb could become stars
Nine different Sooners had 10 or more catches in 2018. With Mark Andrews and Dimitri Flowers gone, that number could decrease in 2018. And Brown and Lamb should get more targets.
Each receiver caught seven touchdowns in 2017. Brown was the team’s leading wide receiver with 1,095 yards and Lamb had 807 yards receiving. Brown could put up statistics worthy of first-team All-American and Lamb should only get better as a sophomore. This duo is in the running with Ole Miss’ A.J. Brown and DeMarkus Lodge and West Virginia’s Gary Jennings and David Sills for the best top receiving two in the country.
Rodney Anderson, RB: Anderson could become even more important to Oklahoma’s offense in 2018. Anderson was a two-way contributor last season, rushing for for nearly 1,200 yards and 13 scores while adding 281 receiving yards and five touchdown catches.
Anderson’s rushing output shouldn’t decrease and his receiving production could increase without Flowers, who was an underrated part of the OU offense a year ago. Flowers averaged nearly 18 yards a catch on 26 receptions. Don’t be surprised if Anderson tops 30 catches and he’s well worth a first-round pick in your Yahoo Sports college fantasy football draft.
Look, Oklahoma has the goods to go 11-1 and win the Big 12 with an 8-1 record. That loss could be to Texas, at West Virginia or at TCU. But as long as Oklahoma loses just one conference game the Sooners will be back in the Big 12 title game and have the chance to play for a College Football Playoff berth.
A young defense doesn’t make strides and leaves Oklahoma vulnerable after the offense isn’t as explosive as it was with Mayfield at quarterback. Losses at TCU and West Virginia and at a neutral field against Texas mean Oklahoma’s not one of the two teams playing in the superfluous conference title game.
Oklahoma sweeps through a non-conference schedule that includes Florida Atlantic, UCLA and Army. That’s a diverse non-conference slate that could provide a few challenges. But the Sooners should be up to them.
A loss on the road should be expected and the Sooners also have to travel to Iowa State, who beat OU at home in 2017. 10-2 feels like a safe bet, and yes, we think Oklahoma will win the Big 12 title game.
– – – – – – –
Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
To listen to the Yahoo Sports College Podcast, visit Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or Google Play. (Interview segment with Houston’s Ed Oliver begins at the 37:20 mark.)