Big 12 Championship Preview
We are less than 2 hours away from the first kickoff of championship weekend when Utah takes it’s CFP hopes into the PAC-12 Championship against Oregon. Here, we’ll be previewing the Big 12 Championship which will kick at 11:00 AM CST Saturday morning between two 11-1 teams in the #6 Oklahoma Sooners and the #7 Baylor Bears.
As is the nature of a round-robin league, this game will be a rematch from the November 16th thriller in Waco. Up 31-10 at the half (and 28-3 at one point), the Baylor offense vanished, allowing Oklahoma to come roaring back to a 34-31 victory while controlling the ball for 24 of the 30 minutes in the second half.
Heading into tomorrow’s title game, the Sooners will be looking to win their 5th straight conference title and 7th of the decade. The Bears, meanwhile, will hope to avenge their brutal loss from three weeks ago and put a bow on what has been a magical season that has surpassed all expectations for this rebuilding program. With a win, either team could make a strong case for the 4th spot in the College Football Playoff. Although, if Georgia upsets LSU or Utah looks extremely convincing against Oregon, the Big 12 would likely be left out regardless of this game’s outcome.
Disclaimer: Despite my best efforts, as a recent Baylor grad, there is going to be some very innate bias going on.
Let’s get into it:
OU Offense vs BU Defense:
The Sooner offense is hands down the best in the country. They rank #1 in SP+ offensive efficiency and #1 in total offense with 564 YPG, but this isn’t exactly the same high-flying, fast-paced, spread offense that we’ve seen the past several years led by Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. As Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy pointed out last week, OU is really more of “a wishbone team… This is a triple option team, and it’s just disguised as a spread.” The numbers back this up too. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has 196 carries on the year compared to just 140 from Kyler Murray last season.
This heavier run-based approach has allowed the Sooners to control the ball very successfully to the tune of 16 TD drives of 4+ minutes in conference play (and 12 in their last 5 games). For comparison, Baylor only has 7 such drives in conference games this year. Make no mistake though, Oklahoma can still strike quickly especially via the ever-explosive WR CeeDee Lamb who sat out of the first matchup against Baylor in concussion protocol.
This Baylor defense is elite, which is not something you would expect to write about any Big 12 defense much less this Baylor unit that, last year, struggled to generate turnovers, allowed explosive play after explosive play, and ranked 91st in total defense. With a focus on eliminating big plays, defensive coordinator Phil Snow has turned this group of experienced seniors around, shifting to a 3-3-5 scheme in the off-season that allows the defense to keep plays in front of them. As a result, the Bears are ranked 15th in the country in SP+ defensive efficiency and are tied for 2nd in turnovers forced.
The defensive line group has been the Bears’ greatest strength. Led by Big 12 Defensive POTY James Lynch, Baylor is 19th in the nation in tackles for loss and 9th in sacks. This is one of the best defenses the Big 12 has seen in several years. Not without blemish though, third downs have been this teams’ glaring weakness. Opponents are converting on third down 39% of the time against the Baylor defense, ranking them 66th in the FBS. OU’s offense, meanwhile, converts on 52% of third downs, good enough for 4th in the country.
Keys to the Matchup
- Last time, Oklahoma clawed back into the game on Jalen Hurts’ legs and finding space via short dump offs on crossing routes over the middle. Will the Baylor defensive play-calling adjust and be slightly more aggressive? Or will they drop back in an effort to contain Lamb and the rest of the OU receivers group?
- In the second half of the first meeting between these teams, OU was 9 for 11 on third down. Can the Bears’ defense get themselves off the field by means other than a turnover?
BU Offense vs OU Defense
The Baylor offense doesn’t have a particularly strong identity, but one primary source of success for this offense has really been the legs of quarterback Charlie Brewer, albeit in a very different way from Jalen Hurts in the OU offense. While the play-calling does include a reasonable number of designed runs for Brewer, many of his rushes have resulted from scrambles and have come at crucial moments in close games. Pass protection has been a huge issue for Baylor currently ranked 95th in the country allowing 2.4 sacks per game. Not all of the blame rests on the offensive line though, as Brewer has shown a distaste for throwing the ball away (or at all sometimes)
This unit is not without play-makers though. Senior Denzel Mims was a first team All-Big 12 selection at WR and probably one of the best jump ball receivers in the country. Tyquan Thornton is an electric sophomore and a dangerous deep ball threat. The Bears will also get a shot in the arm with the return of versatile RB Trestan Ebner to full health. The junior has good vision and cut-back ability in the running game and is even better catching passes out of the backfield, but Ebner has been limited due to an injury for much of Baylor’s conference schedule.
Similar to the story with the Baylor defense, Oklahoma has improved drastically this year on the defensive side of the ball. The Sooners currently rank at 41st in SP+ defensive rankings, which may not sound like much but is an impressive reversal considering this defense was 101st in total defense in 2018. Many have (accurately) attributed OU’s lack of success in the CFP to their lack of defense, but this unit might just be good enough to support their elite offense. Led by veteran LB Kenneth Murray, the Sooners have been exceptional on third down, allowing opponents to convert on just 31% of attempts, good for 13th in the country.
The one thing holding this unit back is a lack of turnovers. Forcing just 11 on the season, Oklahoma is tied for 121st nationally in takeaways. They have, however, come up with them at key moments. An interception on a 2 point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter prevented an upset at the hands of Iowa State. Stripping JaMychal Hasty and picking off Charlie Brewer in the second half were vital in that comeback over Baylor, and lastly a late interception of Max Duggan thwarted a potential TCU comeback two weeks ago in Norman.
Keys to the Matchup
- What will Baylor do to slow down the pass rush and provide better protection for Brewer? More designed QB runs to keep the defense honest? Keeping TEs and RBs back in pass protection?
- Can the Baylor offense stay on the field on third down? A large component of Oklahoma’s comeback was forcing three 3-and-outs in the second half, which kept the Baylor defense from catching a breather.
Baylor has been an incredibly confusing team on special teams this season. They are tied for second in the nation in blocked kicks with 5 on the season, but have been abysmally bad in the punting game and thus have struggled in the field position department. This lack of success punting the ball has been especially baffling as Isaac Power, Baylor’s true freshman punter, was a 5-star All-American coming out of high school. Power has been better over the last couple of games though, with an especially strong showing against Texas two weeks ago when he pinned the Longhorns inside their own 6 yard line three different times. True freshman kicker John Mayers has been a huge asset for the Bears this season, making clutch kicks against Iowa State, Texas Tech, and TCU to win or send those games to OT.
Oklahoma has to have the advantage when it comes to special teams though. CeeDee Lamb is simply too dangerous as a punt returner, they haven’t had the same struggles in the punting game that Baylor has, and Gabe Brkic is one of the best kickers in college football making all 45 PAT’s and all 14 FG attempts on the season.
- Who (if anyone) will come up with an explosive play on special teams? Will CeeDee Lamb rip off a big return? Will Baylor block yet another kick?
Oklahoma is almost undoubtedly the better team here, and is currently a 9 point favorite according to Vegas, as they should be. But this Baylor team is scrappy, knows how to win in tight games, and is hungry for revenge. Charlie Brewer is a wizard with the ball in his hands when trailing late in the 4th quarter. My head says Sooners, but my heart says the Bears. At the very least, look for Baylor to cover here in what should be a great game with likely heavy CFP-implications.
Prediction: Baylor 34 – Oklahoma 31