College football is no beauty contest. That’s good news for the Oklahoma defense.
The Sooner defense has ranged from ordinary to odious this season. It ranks 53rd nationally in rushing defense (156.7 yards per game), 96th in points allowed (32.4 per game), 102nd in yards per play (6.03), 108th in total defense (448.1 yards per game) and 129th in passing yards (291.4 per game).
“We know that they wouldn’t be in the playoff if they weren’t capable of having a good defense,” Alabama running back Damien Harris said. “We’re not really going to look at any stats, how many yards they give up and stuff like that. We’re just going to worry about how we can go out there and play our best game on offense.”
Beauty pageant aside, Harris and his offensive teammates have been only congenial about Oklahoma’s defense. Alabama coach Nick Saban hasn’t fielded many questions about that side of the ball for the Sooners, but said earlier this month that the defense “has certainly made a lot of plays in critical times in the games that have helped them win some close ones.”
Eight of the Sooners’ 13 games, including their loss to Texas, have been decided by two scores or fewer. That was the case in their 59-56 win at West Virginia in November, when Oklahoma scored two touchdowns on fumble recoveries to win the game.
“Everyone’s good at what they do,” Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said. “For me, I think Oklahoma’s did a tremendous job against West Virginia with the two touchdowns that they had, which were crucial. Those were big plays on the defensive part. I feel as an offense, we just need to execute, go out there and execute. We can’t take these guys lightly.”
Still, the talent level can appear lopsided at times. Oklahoma had eight players named All-Big 12 on offense, plus two more on special teams, compared to one second-team selection on defense.
“They’re a really good group,” Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams said. “I think there’s kind of a narrative that they’re not, and that’s a product of the stats that people put up in the Big 12. The way they play their offense, it’s like the offense I played in high school where we’re putting 60, 70 points on everyone. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad defenses, that’s just kind of how that offense works.”
Some of the highest-scoring games against the Oklahoma defense have come against some elite offenses. West Virginia scored 56, Oklahoma State scored 47 and Texas Tech hung 46 in losses to the Sooners. All three of those offenses rank in the top 16 nationally in scoring.
But there have still been problems. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was fired after Texas scored 48 points in early October. The defense was allowing 27.3 points per game at that point; it has since allowed 36.7 in seven games.
It’s done enough to win all seven of those games, however. That’s the goal it will have against Alabama as well.
“They’ve made big plays in big games,” Williams said. “I was watching the West Virginia game, and that was a back-and-forth game, and they had a strip sack, fumble recovery for a touchdown. When you’re in one of those games where you have to keep scoring to stay up with each other, you know if they stop you, then get points off of it that’s a 14-point spread that they just created. I think that it’s a really good group, and luckily we have a long time to prepare for them, so that’s why we’re starting now.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.