Unlike much of this declining league, the Sooners have actually faced a serious opponent in the Tennessee Volunteers, and in Knoxville no less. It's no minor deal to travel into Neyland Stadium, which seats just over 100k people, as it's a larger hostile atmosphere than any in the Big 12.
The Big 12 has some really tough places to play, don't get me wrong, but the most hostile crowds are more in the 60k range (Lubbock, Morgantown, Stillwater, Waco) and what's probably the biggest atmosphere in the league (the Red River Shootout) features a 50-50 split between fans of either team.
For the Sooners to go into SEC country and get that win was an impressive feat, no doubt about it. Through the legitimate testing their team has experienced thus far in the season, I've gleaned the following about the 2015 Oklahoma football team:
The Lincoln Riley Oklahoma offense
The Sooners have become a very interesting team since Lincoln Riley took over the direction of the offense. The first thing that has to be noted is the make-up of their personnel, which is very different from the 2014 team.
Last year, the Sooners' best personnel grouping was this 21 personnel unit:
There was a ton of experienced beef on the field with this group and they specialized in running zone and power down people's throats before having Trevor Knight drop back to lob deep bombs to Sterling Shephard. Almost every play was a run to Perine, who had 1713 yards, or a pass to Shephard who had 970 receiving yards in an injury shortened season.
Here's what might be 2015's best Sooner group, a 20 personnel unit with a new face at almost every position:
I had to make up Baker Mayfield's height and weight because his listed size of 6-1, 209 is obviously total garbage. Overall, this is a much smaller and much less experienced group that is also learning a new offense. They've dropped 200 pounds from 2014 as a unit (from 2948 lbs to 2748), 18 pounds per position on average, and this has had a big impact on how they are now approaching the game.
The new Sooner offense is built around the quick passing game from the shotgun with the ball being spread around to Neal, Westbrook, and Shephard at different parts of the field.
Interestingly, this 20 personnel grouping may not even be the best one for Oklahoma because Joe Mixon is now the best back on the roster for what Lincoln Riley is trying to do.
The Riley run game is built primarily around this spread counter-trey concept:
You can run counter-trey as a physical scheme, but the Riley Sooners do not do so. They are not physical at the point of attack on this scheme or any of their other fold or zone concepts.
However, their run game could become dangerous over the course of 2015 if they would diminish Perine's role and make Joe Mixon the feature of their backfield, paired with whoever is their best blocking back (Dimitri Flowers perhaps) or another slot receiver out in the field.
Perine struggles to make something happen when he's having to start and stop repeatedly in the midst of the Sooners' finesse blocks but Mixon has unreal quickness to make something happen and either find a crease or bounce outside.
What's more, the Sooners have a lot of effective motions and concepts where they flex Mixon out wide and use him to abuse linebackers and safeties or force the defense to cover someone like Shephard with a linebacker or safety so that he can abuse them. The Sooners would be best served by pairing Mixon with a good pass/run blocker in the backfield to protect Mayfield and help open running lanes for Mixon.
This is going to sound crazy because Perine is one of the best running talents in the nation, but he just isn't a great fit in the 2015 Sooner offense. Especially when compared to Mixon, who also happens to be one of the best talents in the Big 12.
This Sooner OL has some clear upside in pass protection, where I suspect they are spending a greater percentage of their practice reps, and that's to be expected given that this roster calls for a strategy of winning games by throwing the ball to a very strong WR corps rather than trying to dominate the line of scrimmage with a green OL.
Baker Mayfield showed a lot in the Tennessee game. He wasn't always accurate when trying to beat the Volunteers coverage, but he showed a ton of grit and ability in evading their pass rush all night, making big throws when it mattered, and doing all he could with his feet to allow the Sooners to run the ball as needed.
I suspect OU may have trouble against teams that press Westbrook at the line of scrimmage (on one play against Tennessee he couldn't even get off the line when he was jammed), but overall this is a very dangerous WR corps and Mayfield was a very decisive and capable distributor.
You can see all of these points on display in one instance here:
The Westbrook is jammed outside and can't get into his route, Mayfield is flushed due to poor protection but gets free and a flexed out Mixon is open downfield.
If the Sooners can get something explosive on the ground going with Joe Mixon this becomes a very dangerous offense, especially as the young OL grow up over the season. If they don't, then there are some B12 defenses that can hold OU to 17 points in regulation but who won't only score 17 themselves.
Is this a classic Stoops brother defense?
Back in the day you could generally be very confident that Oklahoma was going to have one of the best, and most aggressive, defenses in the conference. This hasn't really been true since Venables left for Clemson with OU still posting solid defenses but often seeing them get ripped in big games against top offenses, even in Norman.
In the offseason I wrote that while the staff was right to note that Eric Striker's best position is as a space-backer, this deployment of their star defender hadn't allowed them to build the best possible defense in 2014.
The main problems were these: the Sooners lacked a pass-rush when they didn't blitz Striker off the edge but doing so left them in predictable cover 3 alignments and their cornerbacks weren't good enough to hold up in when opponents were targeting them.
The solution seemed to be Oklahoma giving up the 3-4 defense and playing a 4-2-5 hybrid system where Striker would be a de-facto defensive end and the Sooners would be able to mix coverages and get more DBs on the field.
But then Devante Bond emerged at the Jack linebacker position opposite Striker, and that changed everything. The Sooners stayed in their 3-4 against the Vols and absolutely destroyed the Tennessee passing game through a variety of really good pressures that they could bring from either side of the formation.
What's more, the Sooners have upgraded their middle of the field coverage by plugging in Steven Parker as the cover safety and also returning their starters at both inside linebacker positions and free safety. They are still vulnerable at right cornerback, where sophomore Jordan Thomas is still learning the ropes, but their coverage in the new 3-4 personnel grouping is much stronger than a year ago.
Now the Sooners have a major question to answer, which is what to do against the spread passing teams of the Big 12 who are going to throw the ball more often and much more effectively than did Tennessee.
If the Sooners could play this 2-4-5 lineup it could be devastating against the more passing oriented teams in the conference:
But this group is not likely to provide adequate run defense. Another possibility is to play a 3-3-5 alignment with Striker OR Bond as the rush-end and Charles Tapper in there at DE instead of playing both Sooner outside linebackers, but then OU will have removed one of their best players from the field.
Ideally a defense would prefer to always have their best players on the field and form different personnel packages by rotating role players in and out but that may not be possible for this defense.
I suspect that the strength of their defense will be applying pressure as Bond and Striker are both great blitzers, Charles Walker could eventually become a dominant 3-tech DT, and Charles Tapper is also solid at collapsing the pocket.
What's more, with Parker at strong safety they can adhere to the "rule of 3" and get decent coverage on opponents' top receiving targets. That would leave us to conclude that the 3-4 may be OU's best bet this year...so can they cover well enough from that set to take down passing teams like Texas Tech or Baylor?
The big question is whether Bob and Mike still have their old mojo that allows them to understand how to attack protections and then how to leverage their solid secondary into eliminating opponents' favorite targets when put under pressure.
We'll find out when they play West Virginia on October 3rd.
If the Sooners can recover their aggressive and dominating nature on defense while leveraging Mixon and their WR talent on offense they might be able to compete for a Big 12 crown. If not, I think they'll finish in the 3rd-to-5th range depending on what we see from some of these other fringe competitors in the league.