Why Oklahoma Is on the Verge of Becoming the Next Clemson

Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler throws a pass against Missouri State during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Norman, Okla. (Kyle Phillips/The Norman Transcript via AP)

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Clemsoning. That’s a word you don’t hear anymore. It’s a word Clemson fans probably never want to hear again. There was a time where you couldn’t go a whole fall without someone throwing it out there. After an overtime loss to FSU in 2014, a Washington Post headline read “Against Florida State, Clemson’s ‘Clemsoning’ was the most ‘Clemsoning’ Clemson ever Clemsoned.”

Clemson wasn’t always what they are now. Once upon a time, early in Dabo Swinney’s tenure, they were just good, not great. Sure, there were probably 115 fanbases out there that would envy their success, but just being good gets old quick. “They can’t win the big one!” Fair or foul, that’s what people would say.

Almost a decade later, and Clemson has won the big one — a few of them actually. Today, you’ll hear similar things about programs like Oklahoma, Georgia, even Notre Dame. Powerhouse programs that have been in the playoff discussion for the last half-decade or so. It’s a hard science figuring out what separates the elite programs from the really good ones. If I knew the answers, I’d be making millions as an athletic director somewhere, not sitting here writing this.

There’s one program though, that I think is really close — the aforementioned Oklahoma Sooners. “They don’t play defense! Anyone can win in the Big 12! They always blow it to Iowa St or Kansas State!”

That’s what you’ll hear about Oklahoma, and there’s some truth to it. They’ve had some historically bad defenses, they’ve played some easier schedules than their SEC counterparts, and they have had some really bad losses.

The flipside is, in spite of all that, this has still been a top five program under Lincoln Riley. In 2017, the Sooner defense ranked 77th in yards per play; the same as Rutgers. That team was a play away from winning the Rose Bowl and advancing to the title game, where I think they would have had a pretty good shot at taking down Alabama.

In 2018, the defense wasn’t even in the top 100. They still won the Big 12 and made the playoff while only losing to Alabama by two touchdowns. The same Alabama team that beat a 10-win LSU team 29-0 in Baton Rouge.

In 2019, Alex Grinch arrived in Norman. The prophet that would save Oklahoma’s defense. He did just that. His first year, Oklahoma ranked 57th in yards per play. Last fall, they had risen all the way into the top 30. It hasn’t just been the coaching. In Stoop’s last four years, Oklahoma’s recruiting classes had an average ranking of 14th. Lincoln Riley’s average recruiting class has been in the top 10. I know I said I don’t know what separates the elite from the really good, but I do know recruiting is in there somewhere, especially on defense.

You might be saying that a top 30 isn’t an elite defense. Teams like Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia are consistently in the top 10 on that side of the ball. Oklahoma probably won’t ever reach that level, but do they need to? Only three programs since 2016 have a better margin of victory than Oklahoma. Their defense spent a lot of those years giving up a boatload of points. It didn’t matter. They blew teams out, won their conference, and came pretty close to winning it all.

2020 was a down year for the Sooners. They lost a couple of games by a combined 10 points in the first few weeks and because of that, they weren’t in the playoff discussion come September and people weren’t really watching them down the stretch. They missed Spencer Rattler develop into one of the best QB’s in the country. They missed Oklahoma create one of the best pass rushes in college football, and they missed a group of young skill players starting to find their way.

Oklahoma didn’t lose again after that loss to Iowa State. They finished the year winning eight in a row, which included avenging that loss to Iowa State to claim the Big 12 title in Dallas before coming back to the stadium a few weeks later to hand Florida an absolute beating.

This team has all the ingredients. A potential number one pick at quarterback, a defensive coordinator who belongs at the table with the best in the business, and a head coach who’s proven he can recruit and maintain a program. You mix that all up, and you just might mess around and win a national championship.

Once you win that first ring, you have staying power. We’ve seen it with Clemson. If Oklahoma can propel themselves to a national championship this year, Norman will become a destination. Recruits will itch to go there the same way they itch to go to Alabama. Lincoln Riley will be able to add more and more talent to a team that is already loaded. You play the right cards coming off a national championship, you have a chance to become a perennial powerhouse.

A year from now, we may be wondering the same things about Oklahoma. We also may not be. Lincoln Riley has something brewing in Norman. This will be his best team in a year where Alabama and Clemson will be tasked with replacing a lot, including breaking in new quarterbacks. This is Oklahoma’s opportunity. No excuses are left. Riley has all of his recruits, he has his defensive coordinator, and the schedule sets up well. Alabama and Clemson are both replacing a lot this year, including their quarterbacks. It’s now or never for Oklahoma, and I just think they might do it.

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