The Texas Longhorns got an up-close look at both of this year’s College Football Playoff participants this season, with the September match-up with LSU and of course, the annual Red River Shootout with the Oklahoma Sooners. So as the Tigers and Sooners gear up for the first-round match-up in the Peach Bowl on December 28, here’s some perspective from long-time Longhorns writer Ian Boyd. Formerly of Football Study Hall, Ian still writes at Inside Texas.com and SportsTreatise. He also has a new book, “Flyover Football: How the Big 12 Became the Frontier for Modern Football,” that you can order here from Amazon.
1. As a Texas fan that’s seen both of these two teams compete against the Longhorns, what’s your overall feel for this match-up?
The 2019 Oklahoma Sooners have always struck me as a flawed, rebuilding team this season who’s brilliant head coach was able to make the most of having an athletic, tough senior QB to maintain control over a down conference. They’ve gotten away with quite a lot and I think it’s time to pay the piper. While I was disappointed with some of Texas’ tactical decisions in the LSU game, particularly bringing a zero blitz on 3rd and 17 when they had a chance to get the ball back and steal the win late, I had no questions after that game over whether LSU would win the SEC West and go to the playoffs. The Brady passing game with Joe Burrow is next level, there’s no good answers for it from college Ds, everyone is going to have to outscore the Tigers to beat them.
This isn’t the OU team for that. I don’t think they can handle Burrow and I think the Jalen Hurts show is likely to start playing repeats from the 2016 and 2017 playoffs soon.
2. The OU defense certainly looks improved under Alex Grinch. What did you see from them that worked better compared to last year?
They are unquestionably improved though to what degree is somewhat in question. The No. 1 thing Grinch has done is put their overall athleticism to use in attacking teams so that they themselves are harder to attack. They move around up front a ton, they play a really mobile and talented nose flanked by end-tackle hybrids that can shoot gaps, Linebacker Kenneth Murray is a problem when he’s chasing simple assignments or playing in space, and they play a lot of press coverage with three corners on the field so there aren’t easy release valves to turn.
Last year they started as a team trying to play man coverage and win match-ups in the pass-rush without a star pass-rusher, then they evolved after firing Mike Stoops into a team that tried to just play sound defense and not give away yards. So they’ve come a ways from then, but if you can handle their pressure and coverage then they are every bit as vulnerable as a year ago.
3. Based on what you’ve seen LSU do to date, how might they attack the Sooners?
Well the Sooners are going to try and handle Jefferson, Chase, and Marshall by playing them in press-man with Parnell Motley (6-0, 178), Tre Brown (5-10, 190), and Brendan Radley-Hiles (5-9,180). The match-ups they normally count on being inefficient options for opponents will be much different against this passing game and the LSU tight bunch duo run game and passing schemes are going to be an absolute load for the Sooners on the perimeter because of their lack of size.
I think LSU will mostly just run their stuff, I don’t think the Sooners can defend it.
4. How has Jalen Hurts changed up this Sooner attack?
The Sooners have traded being able to regularly crush teams over the top in the play-action passing game for having a steady, chain-moving scramble game. They’re also a lot less about the GT counter game this season because their tackles aren’t as good but they run a lot of counter-trey by pulling a fullback/tight end, some power/power-read, power-sweeps, draws, and zone schemes. They have a pretty diverse run game this year to make the most of a fantastic interior offensive line, deep cast of fullbacks and tight ends and then Jalen Hurts and the running backs.
It’s a similar playbook to years past but it all looks very different because of the personnel, particularly because Hurts is limited at reading the field past early reads and consistently making throws, but capable of handling 20-plus carries a game on power runs and scrambles.
Their numbers say they are still insanely explosive but if you watch them against teams that didn’t give away easy throws on POP passes to the tight ends or hitches and screens to CeeDee Lamb that he turned into 50-yard gains after the catch, the passing game isn’t the same as in years past.
5. LSU’s defense has struggled with running quarterbacks at times this year. Based on what you’ve seen, how might you prepare for Hurts?
The Sooner run game is really difficult to scheme and that’s why this offense is still very effective even though it doesn’t have the same caliber of play-action or dropback passing game as years past. Baylor had the most success against them by playing a lot of drop eight/inverted Tampa-2 coverage and making Hurts navigate crowded throwing lanes or else scramble against fast defenders with an eye on the backfield.
Texas had some degree of success playing man coverage, which was surprising because the Sooner wideouts are so talented and the Texas DBs have been, well y’all know. I think LSU could get away with playing Lamb and Co. in press-man, not only because the LSU corners are good but because Hurts isn’t a particularly decisive or effective passer when he doesn’t have easy reads and open receivers. The Longhorns didn’t contain him well though, so he hurt them on scrambles, and they got schemed up some by the OU power run game on the edges.
My guess is that Aranda will play man-free and try to have Jacoby Stevens and Grant Delpit well acquainted with the QB run game. In fact, there’s a game from back in the day where Aranda faced Cardale Jones and Ohio State in the B1G Championship game that could be instructive. The Badgers played man-free and then another coverage more akin to cover zero with the safeties playing at like eight yards deep and coming downhill on most everything with the corners getting very little help outside. It was a disaster that day because Cardale Jones beat them over the top a few times and the Badgers got burned peeking into the backfield on some misdirection and option runs. That said, I could see the Tigers getting super aggressive with the secondary and playing something close to cover zero with Delpit and Stevens playing close on the inside receivers and fullbacks and tight ends while the linebackers are free to play the run without worrying about coverage.
Basically I think LSU will really look to smother them and make them prove they can actually burn them deep in the passing game. If that isn’t looking good they can swing in the opposite direction, play really conservatively, and hope that OU can’t execute all the way down the field and in the red zone against the Tigers’ athleticism and tackling. The latter would be a safe way to win, the former combined with early scoring drives could put the Sooners in a really uncomfortable hole that buries them.