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There is no Big 12 championship game. However, the next weeks will put all the challengers to a rugged test.
This starts Saturday for No. 12 Oklahoma, which faces a juggernaut in No. 6 Baylor. Here is the breakdown:
1. Clock management: For the Sooners to win they must control the clock and be productive on offense while consistently moving the chains. Keeping Briles’ offense on the sideline and the ESPN “GameDay”-infused crowd out of the game is essential in this Brazos Brawl. Maximizing the running game in Waco is huge for OU.
2. The running game: A key for both teams. Baylor’s Shock Linwood, a name right out of the WWE, is a stud and has to be put into hibernation for OU to have a viable shot at leaving Waco with the “W.” At the same time, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon need seams and creases to be able to successfully run the ball so Oklahoma can manipulate the game clock.
3. Bill Bedenbaugh’s boys: How the Sooner offensive line performs against a rugged Baylor defensive front is crucial for everything OU does offensively. If this unit can run block efficiently and keep QB Baker Mayfield vertical, the Sooners have a great shot at winning. If Mayfield has to scramble for his life Saturday night in prime time, it will be a long night. The offensive line has to be smart, consistent and tougher than a $2 steak for this business trip to be successful. Other teams have been successful running the ball against Baylor, but can OU?
4. Throw the ball, Baker: The gritty and athletic Sooner signal-caller has to release the football quicker this week and not be reluctant throwing the ball away to reduce the chance of negative yards including sacks OU can’t afford. Mayfield’s legs have never been more important than they are in this nationally televised showdown, but his decision-making is equally as critical. If Mayfield can lead the Sooners to three more wins, where does that put him in the Heisman Trophy race?
5. Sterling Shepard: The wideout has found his groove, and he cannot be single-covered. That means if Mayfield has the time that No. 6 will be able to find his second or third receiving option, who will be single-covered by the aggressive Bears. Shep will get his catches and No. 3 can facilitate his teammates having big days if they are able to beat single coverage. Nonetheless, the offensive line must have its best game of the year for all this to occur.
6. OU defense: This unit played well at K-State, versus Tech in Norman, at KU, and last week at home versus Iowa State, but what does that mean? Is this unit as good as we all hope that they are? Can Charles Tapper, Eric Striker and company generate a pass rush? Can LBs Dominique Alexander, Jordan Evans and Frank Shannon shut down Baylor’s Linwood? Will OU’s defensive tackle rotation rise to the occasion, dominate the inside and alter the pocket? Will the Sooners tackle like the Bears stole their lunch money? Poor tackling versus Baylor has bitten the Sooners in the backside the past two years. The OU players with immediate NFL aspirations can earn themselves an extra buck or two with great play on Saturday.
7. Sooner secondary: This arguably will be the most scrutinized unit on the field when playing Baylor because of the Bears’ ready-for-Sunday corp of wide receivers. The Bears will attempt to exploit the OU corners, especially the returning Zack Sanchez, who’s been nursing a bad ankle the past several weeks. If the secondary has an average game, OU doesn’t win. There are multiple NFL teams that Baylor wide receiver Corey Coleman, a touchdown machine, could start for this weekend. Coleman is a beast and it’s unlikely Baylor’s No. 1 can be covered with one DB.
In the final three games of the season, OU will play three of the top seven scoring offenses in all of college football. The Bears have 55 plays this season in which they have gained 25 yards per play, which is scary.
Baylor was dissed this week by the CFB playoff committee, which obviously has an anti-Big 12 bias, meaning it will likely take a perfect record for any Big 12 team to earn its way into the Final Four. If OU runs the table, would the Sooners get a spot? Who knows, but it certainly can’t happen if OU loses Saturday night on the road, where end zone general-admission tickets are selling for $125, with better seats going for $600-plus.
Don’t get too wrapped up in the fact that Baylor is starting a freshman quarterback. Google “Jamelle Holieway” and you will see that great, first-year QBs who are surrounded by talent can win and win big. Turnovers are HUGE in this one, as are ill-advised penalties. This battle will be intense and chippy, and whoever plays with the most poise, intelligence and unrelenting toughness is likely to win the equivalent of an MMA fight held in an octagon.
Prediction: Oklahoma 42, Baylor 39 … and the over, which is 76
Jim Ross @JRsBBQ
Follow Jim Ross on Twitter @jrsbbq, listen to him on the Ross Report Podcast, and see him live at “RINGSIDE: An Evening with Jim Ross,” during WrestleMania Texas weekend, including shows before and after the WWE HOF ceremony and after Monight Night RAW. Tickets can be had at Ticketmaster.com, starting at $20.