December 28, 2019, 3:00 P.M. Central Time. Clear your calendars. You do not want to miss it. Sandwiched between the charitable chaos of Christmas and the swarming celebration of New Years rests a day that is far from forgettable. If you read social media, keep up with sports commentators, and listen to the people around you, the vast majority of the things you see and hear will tell you not to waste your time watching the Oklahoma Sooners play the Louisiana State Tigers. Most people think that LSU will run away with this game, sending OU home in the first round yet again. As for Lincoln Riley and his team, that is exactly what they want you to think. They have been slandered and talked poorly of time and time again, yet have exhibited remarkable resiliency week in and week out. They believe in themselves and know that "Sooner Nation" is at their back, and that is all that they need. The rest is motivation. Go ahead, count them out. They come from a conference that is "nothing in comparison to the SEC" and that plays "no defense."
You may count them out, but I will not. Before you listen to the next derogatory comment about the Sooners' defense, consider the jump that they have made. No, they are not the best defense in the country, but they are far from the worst. Under first year coordinator Alex Grinch, this defense is giving up less than a touchdown per quarter, in what many consider to be the best offensive league in the country. The Sooners boast a top 25 defense currently, which would have been a mere dream a year ago. In 2018, the defense ranked in the triple digits in almost every category, but got bailed out time and time again by Lincoln Riley's first-class offense. It seemed as if the players were confused about calls before every play and lacked communication frequently. The defensive line rarely got pressure, the linebackers were slow to make reads and fill gaps, and the secondary gave up big play after big play. But with the acquisition of Grinch and several other new position coaches, this #speedD brings energy to every play. The players rarely have communication errors. The defensive line is getting penetration and pressuring quarterbacks regularly. The linebackers are making their reads and filling gaps adequately. The secondary has only surrendered a few big plays, is covering well, and seems to come up with the opportune turnover. Though the unit as a whole has been shaky at times, the last few weeks have been a remarkable display from this motivated unit. Whereas the OU offense has always saved the defense in previous years, the defense is much more consistent and even is covering for the offense at times now. You could certainly say the unit has been battle tested, but the biggest battle is ahead.
LSU brings one of the country's top offenses into the matchup, led by Heisman winner Joe Burrow. Burrow has put on an absolute show this season and has shown very few weaknesses. He, accompanied by one of the nation's top receiving corps, has accumulated nearly 5,000 yards and fifty touchdowns. He helped break LSU's losing streak Alabama, and has put these numbers up versus some of the nation's top defenses. Yet, Oklahoma brings a different challenge to the table. The weakest part of the tigers' offense is the offensive line, and OU's sack percentage is higher than that of any defense the tigers have seen thus far. If the defensive line can get pressure on Burrow, it would greatly help an undersized secondary as they face a monster receiving corps. This group consists of Terrace Marshall, Justin Jefferson, and Biletnikoff finalist Ja'Marr Chase. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is another dangerous weapon in the tigers' backfield, and is one of the most underrated backs in the game. Alex Grinch and company will certainly have their hands full, but I think it is a task they can handle.
The Sooners have their fair share of weapons as well. Steering the ship is Jalen Hurts, who has looked rough at times this season, but has still put up remarkable numbers and will finish somewhere behind Burrow in the Heisman race. This man has a faith-driven will to win, and is the best leader that the Sooners have had in a long, long time. It is interesting to note that he is rather familiar with Ed Orgeron and the tigers from his time at Alabama, where he never lost to LSU. Can he keep the undefeated streak alive? Assisting him in the efforts will be top target CeeDee Lamb, the Sooners' most dangerous weapon. Hurts has struggled to find Lamb at times, but once the ball finds its way into his hands, Lamb is a magician. He averages over twenty yards per catch, and finds unbelievable ways to extend plays. These two have a very productive group around them as well. The tigers will have to game plan for speedy receiver Charleston Rambo; sneaky utility players like Brayden Willis and Jeremiah Hall, veteran slot receivers Lee Morris and Nick Basquine, a talented freshman trio of Austin Stogner, Jadon Haselwood and Theo Wease; and a running back stable of Kennedy Brooks and TJ Pledger that is led by a Joe Moore semifinalist offensive line who paves the way. Lincoln Riley is a play-calling expert, and has an entire arsenal at his disposal. It will be interesting to see how the tigers' good, but not great, defense attacks Riley, Hurts and the offensive juggernaut. Freshman Gabe Brkic has been quite a nice complement to the offense in the special teams game as well. It is worth noting that weapons on both sides of the ball (Ronnie Perkins, Trejan Bridges, and Rhamondre Stevenson) will sit out this game due to suspension. Safety Delarrin Turner-Yell will sit out with an injury, and Edwards-Helaire's status is unknown as he nurses a hamstring injury.
It will be interesting to see how these teams come out of the gates in Atlanta, Georgia, with three weeks of rest and preparation. Being closer to Louisiana, the stadium will probably boast a little more yellow than crimson, but I can also assure you that Sooner Nation will show up and will be rowdy. Until then, all we can do is read and previews talking about how LSU lucked out not having to play Clemson. The rest of the world may pick the tigers, and there is nothing wrong with that. But as for me, I'll go with the Sooners ending their playoff drought. This should be an exciting one, folks!