It’s a big weekend coming up for the Big 12 with two premier games occurring that will go a very long ways towards determining the conference champion. Early in the day the TCU Horned Frogs host Oklahoma State in a big time battle that will help determine whether the season’s final contest between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State (Bedlam) is a de-facto championship game. Later that evening Oklahoma travels to Morgantown to take on West Virginia.
Oklahoma State is currently 6-1 in conference play and tied for second place with West Virginia (5-1) while the Sooners are 7-0 but haven’t played either of their main competitors yet. If Oklahoma State wins against TCU and Oklahoma beats West Virginia, then Bedlam becomes a conference title game. If the Cowboys lose to TCU then West Virginia is in control of the race and can clinch things by beating Oklahoma, Iowa State, and Baylor down the stretch. The Sooners don’t need anything to happen save for beating these two teams.
Most every one of these squads is flawed and if one of them were to somehow make it to the playoffs we’d probably see an even more brutal thrashing than what Clemson administered to Oklahoma last year. However, each of these teams also has some elite elements that have allowed them to stand above the rest of the league. Here’s a glimpse of what each team has been great at:
The Oklahoma State Cowboys
Mike Gundy’s Cowboys are usually at least fairly good at everything, but their defense has continue to struggle in the post-Justin Gilbert era as they’ve yet to find another cornerback that can survive in the conditions that the Big 12 creates for DBs on a weekly basis.
What they have been able to find is a QB and some receivers that are as good as anyone else in the conference at creating nightmarish conditions for every other Big 12 D’s cornerbacks.
Here’s an example of how that looked on a FG drive by the Cowboys against the West Virginia D.
Oklahoma State has been big fans of the “spread-I” formation ever since Dana Holgorsen was the OC back in 2009, even though they haven’t always been that great at running the football from this set. On the bottom of your screen you can see star slot WR Jalen McCleskey, who runs a bubble screen, on top the Cowboys have their main deep threat WR James Washington running a skinny post.
Their goal this time is to get the ball to Washington and QB Mason Rudolph reads the backside safety to see how he responds to the Cowboys inserting a lead blocker to his side of the field. When that safety responds by crowding up to the line of scrimmage, Rudolph fires the skinny post for a TD.
When West Virginia adapts by having their boundary safety slow play the run and try to deny the quick inside window to Washington, Oklahoma State throws the quick bubble to McCleskey:
Oklahoma State is really at their most dangerous allowing Rudolph to make quick decisions and relying on his accuracy and the athleticism of their skill players on the perimeter.
On passing downs they’re a nightmare because of Rudolph’s accuracy and the quality of those receivers. Additionally, while neither Washington (6-1, 205) nor McCleskey (5-10, 170) are big targets, the ‘Pokes have some other options such as TE Blake Jarwin (6-5, 248).
On this play the Cowboys know that one of West Virginia’s big blitzes is likely coming and they’re in a 12 personnel package (1 RB, 2 TEs) with TE Jarwin flexed out on the bottom. They’re in a “max protection” call with seven blockers to help account for the Mountaineer blitz, but a LB still gets through. Rudolph shakes him off and then turns and fires a strike to Jarwin’s back shoulder for a first down.
With a passing game like this, the Cowboys are in every game.
The West Virginia Mountaineers
You could say that West Virginia’s greatest attribute is being “pretty good” at everything. They have a very solid offense that’s similar to Oklahoma State’s but with much better run blocking from their OL and much worse accuracy and playmaking from their QB. But being pretty good on defense is what really sets them apart in the Big 12 and their defense’s greatest attribute this season is situational play.
The Mountaineer defense ranks 20th on standard downs, 47th on passing downs, and 29th in IsoPPP but they’re 18th in the nation in success rate. In other terms, they’re pretty good all the time but they excel at limiting big plays and preventing scores.
That was demonstrated in a major way last weekend when they gave up 536 yards to Texas, coughed the ball up four times, yet only yielded 20 points on the scoreboard.
On one key drive that begun the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers had just thrown an INT around midfield while nursing the 24-20 lead that would eventually be the final score.
They gave up ground up to their own red zone, playing mostly bend don’t break coverages, and then had this three-play series.
On first and 10 they’re facing Texas’ double TE set, but they’re so backed up on defense that they’re free to be aggressive at the line of scrimmage. Weak side LB David Long darts in past the right guard, free to play with aggression because the DBs behind him are close by to replace him if Texas takes advantage of him shooting the gap. He’s able to meet star Texas RB D’Onta Foreman at the line of scrimmage and prevent a gain.
On second and 10 they’re playing their variety of Tampa-2 and because the field is condensed, the underneath defenders are free to attack the run with abandon while the “deep” zone defenders can arrive very quickly in support. Despite winning the line of scrimmage, Texas makes only a solid gain of five yards.
Finally on third and five, West Virginia brings their pressure package:
Keep an eye on safety #16, he’s the “rat” in this zero blitz. Texas is running an RPO play, a lead zone concept with quick passes available to either perimeter. On the bottom, Texas QB Shane Buechele reads the weak side linebacker to see how he responds to the addition of a lead blocker to his side of the formation, much like Oklahoma State ran against West Virginia on the toss to Washington.
However, the rat Joyous Avery (#16) jumps the passing window to the quick slant and creates the moment of hesitation that the blitz needs to get home. By inserting a lead blocker to the left side, Texas left themselves vulnerable to the overload blitz on the right side. That ball needed to be out quickly or else trouble was brewing and sure enough, safety Kyzir White gets the sack that kills Texas’ chances of a TD and then also a strip that ends Texas’ chances of even getting a field goal.
It takes a really high level of execution to get the best of this West Virginia defense on the key downs in a game.
The Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners are ranked no. 2 nationally in S&P offense and that ranking doesn’t yet reflect the shellacking that no. 1 ranked Louisville just endured at the hands of the Houston Cougars. Assuming that OU has a reasonably good performance against West Virginia on Saturday they will likely reassume the no. 1 spot next Monday.
What sets the Sooners apart on offense from the rest of the league is that all of their key skill players are archetypes for the various roles that exist in a spread offense. I’ll demonstrate with some examples from this initial scoring drive that Oklahoma executed against Baylor.
Early on they got things going with a counter-trey/read run to Samaje Perine:
Much like Texas A&M was doing with Trevor Knight, the Sooners will leave the backside DE unblocked and QB Baker Mayfield can keep the ball if he crashes behind the pulling OL to stop the play from behind. Baylor handles this pretty well at the LB level but it’s hard to withstand the sheer power of Samaje Perine cutting upfield behind his pads and 6-8, 350 pound LT Orlando Brown.
If you want a big power back to punish teams for spacing out their defenders to handle your spread formations you can’t really do much better than Perine.
However a botched trick play still had the Sooners behind the chains and they had to convert a third and nine. To get that done they turned to their other back, Joe Mixon:
The Sooners love to run slant/flat combinations on the weak side with their boundary receivers and running backs so when the Bears see star WR Dede Westbrook breaking inside and Mixon running to the flat they hurry to get in position to deny those throws. When Mixon instead cuts back up the field on an angle route the linebacker is hopelessly out of position and then it’s all too simple for Mixon to make another cut and pick up the needed yardage.
If you’re looking for an all-purpose back you can move around and utilize all over the field from spread formations you can’t really do much better than Mixon.
Later in the drive, Oklahoma OC Lincoln Riley deemed it was time to take a deep shot with Dede Westbrook:
They run him down the sideline on a wheel route where he gets a natural rub to help him blow past Baylor CB Ryan Reid. The Sooners just barely miss this connection on this occasion, but Westbrook already has 1254 receiving yards and 14 TDs on the year.
If you’re looking for a deep threat to help you burn teams with play-action or vertical spread concepts you can’t really do much better than Westbrook.
That missed connection helped set up another third down for the Sooners on this drive, so they went back to a formation where they overloaded the boundary in order to involve flex TE Mark Andrews:
There’s not just a ton that Baylor could have done differently on this play, they already have star nickel Travon Blanchard lined up on Andrews and playing tight coverage but at 6-5, 250 he’s an easy target for Mayfield and a matchup problem for every DB.
If you’re looking for a big body to help you move the chains on third downs and block on the perimeter you can’t really do much better than Andrews.
The Sooners finished this drive with an RPO play that involved their scrappy, do-it-all QB Baker Mayfield:
The Sooners have a quick RB screen to the field paired with a counter-trey run in which Mayfield is the featured runner. Baker makes a very late decision to keep the ball, perhaps when he sees the DE peeling out to cover Perine, and then darts behind big Orlando Brown’s lead block and scampers to pay dirt.
If you’re looking for a quick-thinking, versatile QB that can execute spread passing schemes as well as QB option reads you can’t really do much better than Mayfield.
The Sooners have stockpiled the ideal types of talents to feature in a spread offense and it’s way too easy for their offensive staff to put them in positions where their skills complement each other or where defenses are overstressed. If a Big 12 team is going to beat the Sooners it’s probably going to have to come in a shootout because there’s simply too much talent and experience here for anyone to shut them down.
Their defense is weak enough that they could be vulnerable if West Virginia or Oklahoma State gets hot on offense but hoping to gameplan for all these spread O archetypes is a desperate venture.
Whichever of these teams is able to impose their will on these upcoming games with their own elite attributes is going to end up as conference champions. Smart money is on Oklahoma but it’ll be worth watching to find out.