Let’s get to it on the defensive side of the ball.
Defensive line: There has definitely been a major reversal of fortunes during the past three weeks for the front three of the Sooners’ defense. After causing plenty of havoc, the other top teams in the Big 12 have schemed them out of the game with wide splits on the offensive line. Still, the front three have nine tackles for loss and four sacks.
Best-case scenario – Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops figures out how to counter the wide splits and gives defensive tackle Jordan Phillips constant one-on-one opportunities against the center, which leads to a career year for Phillips. Charles Tapper and Chuka Ndulue continue to play their roles, holding up blocks and the defensive pass rush finds itself again, posting six sacks in the final game against Oklahoma State.
Worst-case scenario – There’s no change to the scheme, and Phillips’ back injury becomes a problem. He’s forced to take multiple series off and even missing the Baylor game. Disgruntled by the lack of success, the line is able to be blocked one-on-one rendering the outside pass rush even less effective.
Linebackers: Jordan Evans and Dominique Alexander have been tackling machines with a combined 111 tackles in the first seven games. Eric Striker, who ranks in the top ten in the Big in sacks and tackles for loss, has been a force at times but lately has been neutralized. Geneo Grissom has lost plays to an emerging Devante Bond, but it’s not because of Grissom’s poor play. A fresh Grissom has helped the Sooners.
Best-case scenario – Evans and Alexander figure out their pass defense woes and keep chugging along as the run stoppers they’ve been. A fresh Grissom helps rejuvenate the inside pass rush, which in turn frees up Striker more after routinely dropping in to coverage during the past three games. Striker hits a hot streak and finishes the year as the Big 12 leader in sacks.
Worst-case scenario – Lining up further away from the ball than ever, the thought of “how am I going to make a difference in this play?” continues to bother Striker, who registers just half a sack the rest of the season. He remains a pass coverage option because of it, and either Evans or Alexander misses time, forcing former walk-on Caleb Gastelum back to the field.
Secondary: It has been an up-and-down season for the Sooners’ back end. They’ve scored touchdowns and caused turnovers but have also been embarrassed by fresh-faced quarterbacks and dominating receivers alike. They ranked second-to-last in passing defense but have the third-most interceptions in the Big 12.
Best-case scenario – Zack Sanchez exemplifies a shutdown cornerback, closing off the entire side of the field. Inside of playing sides, Sanchez and Julian Wilson play man as Oklahoma is able to dominant opposing wide receivers the rest of the season. Sanchez picks off five more passes the rest of the season and finishes with double-digit picks. Oh yeah, and Steven Parker steps in as a starter and earns the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year award.
Worst-case scenario – Sanchez’s shoulder problems come back, and he misses time and more tackles. Wilson can’t step into the role as a No. 1 corner, and Jordan Thomas isn’t ready or a starting role. The safeties continue to be an issue.
Special teams: Oklahoma has been great in two areas of special teams – kicking and kick-off– and just average in the other two – punting and punt return. Alex Ross is the top kick returner in the country, and before last Saturday, Michael Hunnicutt was as automatic as they come. Meanwhile, Sterling Shepard has made as many fair catches as punt returns, and punter Jed Barnett has been suspect.
Best-case scenario – Special teams coach Jay Boulware finds a unique way to keep Ross fully involved in the kick return game, and Hunnicutt shakes off his bad day, not missing another kick for the rest of the year. Michiah Quick replaces Shepard as the team’s punt return, which allows Shepard to save his energy for a more productive offensive season. Quick also takes his first punt return back for a touchdown.
Worst-case scenario – Hunnicutt is rattled by his bad day and struggles the rest of the season. He never finds his rhythm and misses another big kick down the stretch against Baylor. Teams find a way to avoid Ross on kickoff return, and after Quick replaces Shepard, he fumbles away a pair of punts.