STS: Oklahoma was not expected to beat out TCU or Baylor for the Big XII crown this season, but playing their biggest games late in the year made all the the difference. Oklahoma struggled with Tennessee, surrendered 38 points to Tulsa, and lost to Texas during their first five games. They closed they year by beating Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma State to win the Big XII outright. What has led to this dramatic in-season improvement?
CCM: I think Oklahoma's improvement can be attributed to a few different factors, the first of which is some changes with the on-field personnel. Starting corner Jordan Thomas served a one-game suspension against Tulsa and the Golden Hurricane had a field day picking on freshman P.J. Mbanasor. After the Texas loss things really started to click for Oklahoma, on both sides of the ball, and I think it had a lot to do with changes on the offensive line and in the defensive secondary.
The Longhorns punished Oklahoma by relentlessly blitzing (something I think Clemson can do) and using a power running game. Changes along the offensive line, along with some new blocking schemes for the running backs, helped OU better handle the blitz and allowed the offense to get in sync. Inserting Will Johnson into the defensive secondary gave the Sooners a DB who can be strong in run support and properly handle coverage responsibilities as well.
I think the final factor in Oklahoma's mid to late season success was the team finally catching on to the scheme changes on both sides of the ball. Lincoln Riley installed an entirely new offense for the Sooners and changes in the defensive coaching staff resulted in several new schemes as well. It took them a bit to get caught up on those but once they did the Sooners became very potent.
STS: Deserved on not, Big XII defenses have a poor reputation nationally. While OU's unit is the best in the conference, the strongest defenses Oklahoma has faced this season are WVU (S&P+ #18), Tennessee (S&P+ #25), and Oklahoma State (S&P+ #58). The S&P+ adjusts for quality of opponent so I'm certainly not questioning Oklahoma's offensive prowess, however Clemson will assuredly be the toughest defense they have faced all year. Considering that much of Clemson's recent "struggles" have been blamed on fatigue, which will be washed away after the three week lay-off, what gives you confidence (or worry) about how Oklahoma's offense will operate against a different level of defensive competition.
CCM: My biggest worry about Oklahoma's offense is the line facing Clemson's defensive front. Offensive line was a strength for the Sooners last season but they entered 2015 with three new starters. While they are certainly more experienced now than they were back in September, I still worry about how susceptible they still may be to physical power rushers, particularly off the edge.
I think I would be most confident in Oklahoma's receivers against Clemson's defensive backs. The Sooners are deep in talent at the receiver position and are really good in finding that one mismatch, that every defense has, and exploiting it.
STS: We recently published an analysis of the original recruiting numbers of the starters on each side of the ball for the Tigers and Sooners. I was impressed with the Sooners' skill position talent, but surprised that Clemson had the advantage on the offensive line. With the exception of true freshman LT Mitch Hyatt, all of Clemson's starters along the line have been in the program for three years or more. OU starts a true freshman, a RS freshman, and a sophomore. Additionally, Clemson's starting O-line averaged a 3.6* rating from Rivals coming out of high school while the Sooners' O-linemen averaged a 3.2*. Is this a potential advantage that the Tigers could exploit?
I don't put a lot of stock into recruiting ratings because they are grossly inaccurate. Sam Bradford (2008 Heisman Trophy winner) was a three-star recruit coming out of high school which just goes to show how much a player can develop, or possibly even regress, once they get on campus. What I do put stock in is experience and the Sooners are certainly lacking in that area along the offensive line. That bothers me against Clemson's seasoned defensive line and I believe that OU will need to play above their years of experience in order to attempt to lessen the advantage the Tigers have.
On the other side of the ball, I really do like the experience of Oklahoma's front seven against Clemson. I think that could be a fun chess match to watch as the game progresses.
STS: Lastly, I'd like to let you close this Q&A session by having you tell us a little about one player or position group that you view as a major advantage for the Sooners - an area where OU really holds the advantage.
I'm going to go ahead and stay with the front seven here. Keep in mind that this is a group of guys that includes Charles Tapper and Eric Striker who dominated an Alabama defensive line that was deemed far superior in the Sugar Bowl two years ago. The key here is going to be if Oklahoma can contain Watson, to keep him from getting outside, and then bring pressure up the middle.
STS: A big thank you to Matt Hofeld, who you can follow on Twitter here, for giving us some insight as we anxiously await New Year's Eve. You can see our answers to his questions here. We're also working on a Q&A Part II, so be on the lookout for that to drop soon. Until then, Merry Christmas!