News & Analysis

College Football Playoff Preview: LSU vs. Oklahoma

The College Football Playoff semifinal pitting the No. 1 overall team in the country, the LSU Tigers, has largely been an undervalued matchup according to fan’s perception of the No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners. Using the PFF data at hand from our play-by-play grading of every single player on every single play of every game, we take a look at whether or not that perception of the Sooners is justified as we go through some of the key discussion points heading into the Oklahoma-LSU College Football Semifinal. 

Can Oklahoma do the unthinkable and beat LSU?

Let it be known now, the Sooners have the horses to certainly keep pace with the LSU offense, as they’re perhaps almost as good as the Alabama offense was when they met earlier this season.

For the season, the Oklahoma offense is generating a positive EPA on 54.2% of their plays, the third-highest figure in the country, and the only teams ahead of them are LSU (55.1%) and Washington State (54.7%). Alabama currently sits at 54.0%, but looking at when Alabama entered their Week 11 matchup healthy against LSU, the Crimson Tide bettered the Sooners with a mark of 55.6%. 

That being said, the Oklahoma offense can score seemingly at will, and they have a thorn in LSU’s side running point for them this season in the form of Jalen Hurts. Hurts has totaled 180 rushing yards and two scores on the ground against LSU in his career, with 290 yards and another touchdown coming in the air. He hasn’t had to do much in his previous two outings against LSU, however, as the Alabama defense limited LSU to just 10 points in the two meetings with Hurts at the helm. Still, he’s currently 2-0 against his former conference foe.

The Sooners are the only team in the country to field overall team grades in each offensive facet above 90.0 overall, seeing a team passing grade of 90.7, a team receiving grade of 91.3 and a team rushing grade of 91.6 — no other team can say the same.

Jalen Hurts was, at one time, the Heisman frontrunner

Jalen Hurts has had a bit of an up-and-down year, but let’s not forget, this guy was every bit a Heisman Trophy contender in 2019.

For a while, it seemed like the only player capable of challenging Joe Burrow for the Heisman was Hurts, and arguably, it was Hurts’ to lose before the second half of the season. Hurts finished the season as the country’s fourth-highest graded quarterback with an elite grade of 91.4 overall, completing 222 of 310 passing attempts for 3,632 yards and 32 scores. He also led all non-option quarterbacks with 1,367 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground, surpassing some of the yardage totals of former great college quarterbacks and Heisman winners like Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray

Hurts' season was tarnished (from an award’s perspective), however, when he threw seven of his 12 total turnover-worthy pass attempts during the team’s final five games. As terrific as his season was from an overall standpoint, those minor blemishes really took the steam away from postseason accolades and his public perception. Yet, all he did was win, even when he may have been to blame for his team being behind on the scoreboard. 

Contrary to prior belief, Hurts was dominant on deep throws downfield with the Sooners, something that was not in his wheelhouse during his time at Alabama and something that he utilized to get his team back games at times, just as he did against Baylor the first time around.

In fact, during his two years as the full-time starter at Alabama, Hurts had never completed more than 35.0% of his passing attempts targeted at least 20 yards downfield. This season at Oklahoma, he threw the deep pass more than he ever did at Alabama and completed 53.3% of his 60 deep attempts. He was one of the nation’s best when targeting passes 20 yards past the line of scrimmage, which is a tribute not only to his offseason work but also to a Lincoln Riley offense that plays to Hurts' strengths and finds open receivers downfield. Of his 60 attempts, Hurts had receivers wide open on 18 of those attempts, the fifth-most among all quarterbacks in the country.

Top-end receiving talent to take center stage

Hurts' improved downfield passing led to the emergence of one of the nation’s best all-around receivers in Ceedee Lamb, who will take the same field as Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase, the latter of whom won Biletnikoff Award race in 2019. Lamb and Chase are undoubtedly two of the best receivers in college football this season, in a year that has been littered with top-notch receiving talent. 

While other receivers do a few things at elite levels, Chase and Lamb do everything at elite levels across the route tree, across any scenario and against any coverage. Lamb broke several tackles against some of the best defenses Oklahoma played and was a true gamechanger at times this season. He’ll have to bring that A-game against LSU, as the Tigers have an NFL-ready secondary and a true freshman who has dominated in coverage this year.

Coverage game gives Oklahoma chances to stop LSU

Oklahoma’s ability to cover in tight spaces this season has been evident. There are multiple moments that stand out, but perhaps none more important than LB Nik Bonitto’s game-sealing interception against Baylor or CB Parnell Motley’s game-winning pass breakup on a 2-point attempt against Iowa State. They’ve bent but not broken in coverage all year long, and even against Kansas State, it was the rushing ability of Skylar Thompson that saw their undoing. 

Bonitto holds the highest coverage grade of the group on defense, as he’s patrolled the middle of the field brilliantly, giving up just seven catches for 56 yards with no touchdowns and an interception plus two pass breakups on just over 100 snaps in coverage. He’s been solid across the middle while also chipping in with 16 pressures and 18 defensive stops. The aforementioned Motley has been Oklahoma’s star on the backend, however, as he’s routinely gone against the opposing team’s No. 1 WR.

Opponent WR Targets Receptions Yards YAC TD INT PBU
Texas Tech T.J. Vasher 2 0 0 0 0 0 0
Kansas Stephon Robinson 1 1 37 5 0 0 0
Texas Collin Johnson 1 1 14 4 0 0 0
Kansas State Malik Knowles 1 1 11 5 0 0 0
Iowa State Deshaunte Jones 2 2 3 9 0 0 0
Baylor Denzel Mims 5 4 53 14 0 0 0
TCU Jalen Reagor 1 0 0 0 0 0 0
Oklahoma St. Dillon Stoner 4 1 6 1 0 1 0
Baylor Denzel Mims 2 0 0 0 0 0 0

Motley’s ability to limit the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver has certainly been on display this season, but it remains to be seen how he locks up against arguably the best receiver in the country and hands-down the best quarterback in the country when he sees Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase.

While pressing the LSU receivers has led to varying results for teams this year, the loss of Ronnie Perkins along the edge means that press coverage may be out of the question, as soft zones may allow more cushion for the Sooners' defense to yield coverage lapses given that Burrow will undoubtedly have time in the pocket to throw. Fortunately for the Oklahoma faithful, Parnell Motley has done his fair share of damage both in press and off-man.

Coverage Snaps Targets Receptions Yards TD 1D INT FINC
Press 279 47 17 228 1 8 2 10
Off 103 13 5 50 1 2 0 4

Motley can cover the best of the best, no matter the scenario, and that's a big reason as to why he was the Big 12’s highest-graded cornerback in 2019. He also is entering this matchup, like the rest of the Oklahoma defense is, with all the confidence in the world.

“We’re just going to do our job, only our job and cut it loose,” Motley told PFF this week. “Our plan is how we approach every game, it’s a standard on our defense, and that’s execute the bottom line. I think we have a pretty good game plan. We got them.”

Oklahoma’s bottom line

The recipe for success is there for the Sooners to topple the mighty LSU Tigers in the College Football Playoff Semifinal. There are fundamental pieces on their roster this season that make them a legitimate candidate to take down LSU, it’s just a matter of whether or not they get their best performance from their best players in the showdown.

This also goes with just barely mentioning Joe Burrow as the nation’s best quarterback, who can buy time with the best of them and has the highest grade in the nation when kept clean from pressure and when he has faced pressure. It’s also without mentioning in too much detail that what Oklahoma does well, LSU does equally as well, if not better. As good as Hurts has been on the deep ball this year, LSU’s team coverage grade on 20-plus yards passes is the best in the country. Derek Stingley is the best cornerback on deep balls and the best cornerback in the nation, and he's by far the best Ceedee Lamb will see all year long. Grant Delpit, Kristian Fulton, Cordale Flott and Kary Vincent Jr. also make up an incredibly deep secondary that should limit Lamb and his counterparts in the air. Jacob Phillips at linebacker is the best tackler in the country while K’Lavon Chaisson can wreak havoc on the edge and Patrick Queen (along with Phillips) should patrol the middle of the field as a spy for Hurts’ rushing ability.

Chase should square up against Motley, but that leaves mismatches with Justin Jefferson, Terrace Marshall and Thaddeus Moss, all of whom should all draw favorable matchups in the Oklahoma secondary even if the unit is full of former five-star recruits. Simply put, LSU has all the talent in the world to not only be the clear-cut favorites to defeat Oklahoma but to also to be favored in the National Championship game.

But as unrealistic as it sounds to the layperson, if the chips fall right and the pieces of the puzzle remain intact, Oklahoma could indeed shock the world, and you better believe these aforementioned advantageous areas will be exploited by the Sooners.

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