December 1, 2021

Oklahoma survives Tulane, but Sooners’ Playoff bid is off to rocky start

Oklahoma started its 2021 College Football Playoff campaign with a victory over Tulane, just as…

Oklahoma started its 2021 College Football Playoff campaign with a victory over Tulane, just as everyone expected. Less expected was how close Tulane came to upending the No. 2-ranked Sooners in the first game of the season.

The Sooners narrowly escaped Norman, Okla. with a 40-35 win over Tulane in what would have been among the greatest opening-weekend upsets in college football history. By the way, this game was only moved to Norman after Hurricane Ida made it impossible for the game to take place in New Orleans. What should have been a cakewalk for the Sooners instead raises the question of whether this team actually has what it takes to challenge for a national title.

The Sooners undoubtedly showed some good things against Tulane. But, it’s Tulane. And the longer it takes Lincoln Riley, Alex Grinch, Spencer Rattler and Co. to overcome their shortcomings from Saturday, the longer doubts around this team will persist.

MORE: College football scores: Live results, updates, highlights from Week 1’s top 25 games

Here’s what you need to know about Oklahoma’s uneven opener.

Spencer Rattler with another slow start

Oklahoma’s Playoff hopes weren’t the only thing that had a rocky start this year. Rattler looked less than inspiring against Tulane, completing 30 of 39 passes for 304 yards and a touchdown, adding another score on the ground. But he also threw two interceptions, and nearly had a third if it weren’t for a questionable defensive pass interference call in the fourth quarter.

For example: His first two passes went for minus-5 yards, then his first pick of the day:

Granted, this isn’t the first time Rattler has had early-season struggles: He also threw four touchdowns and three interceptions in his second start of the 2020 season, a 38-35 upset loss to Kansas State. He finished the season with 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns. But he was supposed to have everything together at the start of his third year in Riley’s system. Instead, he was outplayed by a true freshman in Tulane’s Michael Pratt, who completed 27 of 44 passes for 296 yards and three scores and added another on the ground.

Luckily for Rattler, he won’t face a defense that can keep up with the Sooners all season. But what happens when a team such as Texas, which can put up points, takes on the Sooners? He’ll need to score more than his defense gives up. It’s just one game into the season, but he came dangerously close to failing that challenge against a significantly less talented Tulane team. Speaking of the defense:

Oklahoma defense still needs a lot of work

The storyline surrounding Alex Grinch’s defense this year is that it would no longer be a liability for Oklahoma’s Playoff hopes. No, more than that: that it could actually be a strength for this team.

One game into the season, and that storyline looks weaker than the Sooners’ defense did against the Green Wave on Saturday. They forced three fumbles and three sacks against Tulane; that’s the good news. The bad news is they allowed 396 yards — only 34 fewer than Oklahoma’s offense gained — and allowed Tulane to convert 4 of 6 fourth-down conversions. Eight Tulane receivers had multiple receptions, led by Tyrick James’ six-reception, 95-yard game. Cameron Carroll (four catches, 19 yards) had two touchdown receptions; Will Wallace (three receptions, 27 yards) had another.

It’s not just that Tulane was able to pass the ball consistently. It’s that Oklahoma had so many busted coverages that allowed Green Wave receivers to move the ball up field largely uninhibited. That led to the final drive of the game, where Pratt fell a yard short on a fourth-and-13 scramble to give Oklahoma the ball back and run the clock out. Had he stretched his arms out on the final dive, Tulane could have continued the drive and … who knows?

Oklahoma faces Western Carolina before facing Nebraska in its first Power 5 game of the season. The defense needs to get its feet under it during that time, or it will continue to be more of a liability than a strength for the Sooners.

Hats off to Tulane

No team in college football faced a tougher Week 1 challenge than Tulane. The Green Wave were forced to evacuate New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Ida, practiced all week in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, then traveled to Oklahoma for what was designated a home game in Norman.

Tulane’s response to those hardships was nothing short of incredible: The Green Wave gave everything Oklahoma could handle and more in a game that favored the Sooners by 31.5 points. They weren’t perfect — three turnovers and the game-ending turnover on downs were huge game-swinging plays — but no one expected Willie Fritz’s team to step into Norman and play the Sooners the way they did.

No college team likes to claim a moral victory, but Tulane can certainly walk away with its head held high.