Baylor-TCU; TCU-Baylor. The road to the Big 12 Conference championship, and thus a shot at the College Football Playoff, is expected to pass through either of the league’s top two finishers a season ago.
Don’t be surprised if Saturday’s West Virginia-Oklahoma matchup plays a key role in determining this season’s Big 12 champion, however.
The Sooners and Mountaineers meet in Gaylor Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium with unblemished records and impressive first months to their credit. West Virginia powered its way to balanced wins over Georgia Southern, Liberty and Maryland, employing the prolific offense for which head coach Dana Holgorsen is known, but also imposing its will defensively.
Oklahoma is also 3-0 with wins over Akron, Tennessee and Tulsa. Head coach Bob Stoops’ hire of offensive coordinator and former Holgorsen colleague Lincoln Riley last offseason is paying immediate dividends. An offense that slogged through periods of stagnation a season ago is among the nation’s most explosive through the first month of 2015, posting 41.3 points per game.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield is the ideal fit for Riley’s system, bringing a dual-threat style that almost looks like controlled chaos. Combined with the two-headed backfield monster of running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, the Sooners are just beginning to scratch the surface of their offensive potential.
“I’m really pleased with the direction of the offense,” Stoops said on this week’s Big 12 coaches teleconference call. “It’s still way early, and we’ve been inconsistent overall, but I do believe in what Lincoln’s doing. I believe our players will continue to improve and get better at it as we go.”
Saturday should reveal just how much of that inconsistency is Stoops striving for perfection, and how much of it is a legitimate weakness.
Holgorsen’s short summary of West Virginia’s defensive play thus far was, “pretty good,” in the understatement of the football season.
West Virginia’s reinvigorated defense appears well-equipped to exploit any genuine inconsistencies in an offense. At just 7.7 points per game allowed, the Mountaineers rank No. 1 nationally in scoring defense.
“Very physical, play hard,” Stoops said in reference to the West Virginia defense. “Got a lot of speed out there. They try to pressure you.”
West Virginia’s brand of pressure hasn’t manifested in many sacks — the Mountaineers have just four on the season — but it has created plenty of turnovers; 11 in total. Their plus-3 per game turnover margin is tops in college football.
Mayfield’s brand of football, while perfect for Riley’s scheme, is vulnerable against a ball-hawking secondary like that of West Virginia. Generating takeaways will prove critical to the Mountaineers’ upset bid, as is likely to be the case throughout its Big 12 docket against other uptempo offenses at Oklahoma State, and favorites Baylor and TCU.
Oklahoma’s defense has been far less greedy. With two takeaways in three games, only Wake Forest and Virginia rank lower among Power Five conference teams.
The Sooners’ defensive strategy relies less on creating big plays, and more on limiting them. To wit, opponents average just 3.4 yards per carry running on Oklahoma, while completing just 49 percent of their pass attempts. It’s a style that may not be as sexy, but can certainly be effective.
The defense that dictates direction Saturday won’t just have an upper hand for the week. This one sets the stage for the Big 12 season to come.