Only four teams remain in The Comeback’s college football Top 50 countdown as we approach the beginning of the regular season. Up next in our preseason rankings are the Oklahoma Sooners.

Oklahoma is a top program, but our staff voted while Bob Stoops was still the head coach. What will Lincoln Riley do? Can he seamlessly step into Stoops’s shoes? Oklahoma’s success this season will hinge on that. The cupboard is stocked. The talent is undeniable. Quarterback Baker Mayfield is a Heisman favorite. The only real unknown is the coach. Will Lincoln Riley lead this team to the glory it is capable of reaching? Or will Oklahoma take a step back under him?

No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners

2016 Record: 11-2, 9-0 Big 12 (defeated Auburn 35-19 in Sugar Bowl)

Head Coach: Lincoln Riley (first year)

2016 in a nutshell

Oklahoma went big in the non-conference season and it bit the Sooners. Oklahoma was clearly not the superior team against neither Houston nor Ohio State, and that slow start cost Oklahoma a Playoff spot. The Sooners did not lose another game after that 1-2 start, though, and enter the 2017 season with the country’s longest winning streak.

Of course, the return trip to Ohio State in Week 2 will show us if this team really grew as 2016 went on — or if the competition level just dropped after Week 3.

Recruiting Roundup

247Sports Composite Ranking: 8th

Oklahoma has never had trouble recruiting under Stoops, though the classes have slipped from Top 5 rankings to Top 10s in recent years. Still, this is a strong class and freshman like Levi Draper may be asked to step up, as Oklahoma’s defense might need some spots filled.

Three Key Stats

7,665 — Mayfield’s passing yards at Oklahoma. When most of Mayfield’s highlights showcase his escapability, it’s easy to forget that he is an excellent passer. He has thrown for at least 3,700 yards in both of his seasons in Norman. He does plenty of of dancing in the backfield, but he makes Oklahoma’s offense tick through the air. For all of his renown as a mobile quarterback, Mayfield only has 582 yards on the ground in the last two seasons.

(Photo by Richard Rowe/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

2,434 — Combined backfield yards leaving. Between Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, Oklahoma had an incredible backfield last season. The Sooners had power and speed and the offensive line to set them loose into opposing secondaries. Oklahoma is loaded with talent, but one of those running backs will have to step up and replace these two explosive backs.

17 — Number of turnovers forced by Oklahoma in 2016. This is barely more than one turnover per game. Oklahoma also committed 17 turnovers in 2016. It’s very hard to be an elite team without a positive +/- turnover ratio. This is a stat to watch this season–if Oklahoma can’t get this number moving in the right direction (on both sides of the ball), then the Sooners may very well lose a close game that they shouldn’t.

Make-or-Break Games of 2017

Sept. 9, at Ohio State

Record in Last 5 Meetings: 1-2 (only three meetings all-time)
Last Year’s Result: L, 45-24

Why it Matters: This game will tell us everything we need to know about Oklahoma in 2017. The Sooners won’t be favored in Columbus — they lost by 21 at home last year — but this is how we will learn what Lincoln Riley is doing with this team. It’s the first — and biggest — real test of the season. Oklahoma doesn’t need to win this game, but if the Sooners aren’t competitive then there will be real questions about whether Lincoln Riley is the right person to lead this program into the future.

Three Key Players

Baker Mayfield, QB: Mayfield is the most unsackable quarterback in the country this year, no disrespect to Lamar Jackson. Jackson might be faster and better in the open field, but any look at what the two can do when the offensive line breaks down shows Mayfield’s clear advantages. Mayfield is the ultimate equalizer at quarterback, because he really is almost impossible to sack. Oklahoma’s success will depend a lot on Mayfield scrambling and letting the offense flow from there.

The whole defense: I’m not even going to pick out an individual on defense. This unit, even though it plays Big 12 offenses, has had plenty of problems in previous years. This team allowed 59 points and over 800 yards of offense against Texas Tech last year. It has individual standouts, but this unit as a whole needs to keep it locked in, or an upset or two might be brewing in the Big 12–especially against the extremely talented offensive in-state powerhouse in Stillwater.

Jeff Badet, QB: With the entire backfield leaving, it might go unnoticed that Oklahoma is losing almost all of its returning receiving corps. It’s not clear who will step up for Oklahoma, but Badet — a graduate transfer from Kentucky — produced well in his career in the SEC. He’s as good a candidate as any to keep an eye on among these receivers. Someone will have an explosive year; the only question is who.

Bold Predictions

Oklahoma will lose to Ohio State and run the table from there — but the Sooners will miss out on a Playoff spot when they lose a rematch against Oklahoma State in the new Big 12 Championship Game.

About Yesh Ginsburg

Yesh has been a fan and student of college football since before he can remember. He spent years mastering the intricacies of the BCS and now keeps an eye on the national picture as teams jockey for College Football Playoff positioning.