In a game that’s more about Oklahoma fine-tuning itself on both sides of the ball than it is about a victory, the elephant in the room is the Sooners’ secondary, which finished 117th in the country last year.
And all the starters from the end of last season are back for another year.
They’re trying to change that and lower that number drastically.
“They're building consistency and confidence, and that's what you have to have in the secondary,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “It has to be real confidence. . . . It's not false confidence when you're out there playing.”
Against Akron, there won’t be too many worries. The Zips, who lost their top two pass catchers from last season, are still deciding between quarterbacks. Kyle Pohl could be a three-year starter or sophomore Tra’Von Chapman, who was a four-star quarterback out of high school, could displace him. Chapman is a bit more mobile while Pohl is a pocket passer.
The Sooners had trouble with both last season. Either will provide a good first test.
“We’ve made a ton of progress,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “College guys with a little bit of time and smarts rarely stay the same. These guys are really communicating better.”
Oklahoma has to be sound in the secondary. More or less, it’s battling itself. Whatever the passing yard total comes to Saturday night is meaningless. It won’t be a measure of how good the secondary is – although it might be a reflection of how bad the unit could be.
That is the main battle this weekend. Here’s a quick look at how the teams compare in a few other key spots:
Baker Mayfield vs. Akron’s secondary: The Zips’ pass defense wasn’t impenetrable last season, ranking in the middle of the pack last year in passing defense. What’s more important is how Mayfield handles the spotlight of his first game as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback.
Mayfield doesn’t have to be perfect, but he needs to eliminate mistakes. His turnover count should be zero by the time this game is finished. That will prove that naming him as the starter wasn’t the wrong choice – at least initially.
Orlando Brown vs. the Zips’ pass rush: Brown is the least experienced of all the offensive linemen, playing the most important position on the offensive side of the trench. Saturday will be his first start, and while Akron doesn’t have any world-beaters on the edge, Brown needs to be stout.
Again, this game is more about not making mistakes than making big plays.
Oklahoma defensive line vs. Akron rushing attack: How will Marquise Overton play in his first game? Can Charles Walker be dynamic force? How steady is Matt Romar? What will Eric Striker’s role be if he has to play in run support? There are a lot of questions about the line outside of Charles Tapper.
The Zips will likely lean on their rushing attack, having changed their offense after finishing in the bottom 20 of the nation last season. It’s all about being sound in defense and not missing tackles. If Oklahoma can’t stop the run with fewer defenders against Akron then the pass defense will surely struggle against Baylor and TCU.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops vs. the clock: This will be the first true test run for the Stoops-in-the-box experiment. The chain of command – and play-calling – will be tested for the first time.
Stoops has to be ready for it. It’ll be a nice test because the perfect play won’t matter on Saturday, but Stoops will get to see a team that changes packages and gives a good sample of spread offense.