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Playoff Preview
Fourth-ranked Sooners set to battle No. 1 Tigers for spot in national title game

Their teams clash on Dec. 28 to decide a spot in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, and LSU coach Ed Orgeron and Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley have met only once before.

It was at the NFL Draft, and it was the 58-year-old Orgeron who remembers being a little star-struck by the 35-year-old Riley -- or, at least, Riley's playbook.

“I immediately started asking him about his counter (run play),” said Orgeron, “because I’ve been enamored with his counter play and his offense there.”

Riley seemed taken aback by what Orgeron took from their lone encounter.

“I’m going to have to remember what I told him about the counter play,” said Riley, “so we don’t do that on the 28th.”

Three weeks after winning their respective conference championships, the No. 1-ranked Tigers (13-0) and No. 4 Sooners (12-1) get together for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The winner of the CFP semifinal moves on to play either No. 2 Ohio State (13-0) or No. 3 Clemson (13-0) in the title game on Jan. 13 in New Orleans.

“We’re certainly excited to get to Atlanta,” said Riley. “Certainly, an honor to come in there and compete once again in the College Football Playoff against a tremendous LSU team that’s played very well all season, beaten a lot of really good football teams. Obviously, have a ton of respect for coach Orgeron, their staff, their players. What a great year that they’ve had.”

Orgeron has been a head coach at LSU and Ole Miss and USC, and he’s more than 20 years Riley’s senior. But clearly, Orgeron has been impressed with the Sooners’ young prodigy.

“Coach Riley, I’ve been following him all his career,” said Orgeron. “He’s done a tremendous job at Oklahoma. Oklahoma has a great tradition, outstanding football team. It’s going to be an outstanding battle.”

It’s a matchup of the No. 1 and No. 2 offense in major college football — with a twist.

OU has been the NCAA’s total offense leader three years running and has sat atop the rankings all of 2019, but on championship weekend, the Tigers supplanted OU atop the offensive rankings with a dominant 37-10 win over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. Meanwhile, OU’s numbers dipped in the Big 12 title game against a ferocious Baylor defense.
LSU comes into the Peach Bowl averaging 554.4 yards per game, while the Sooners are averaging 554.2.

It’s that close.

While OU always seems to be at the top of college football’s offensive charts, for LSU, this season has been an unexpected surge — shocking, even.

Orgeron, who replaced Les Miles on an interim basis in 2016 before getting the job at the end of that season, has elevated the Tigers’ offense by retooling the coaching staff, from his first move of promoting offensive line coach Steve Ensminger to offensive coordinator back in 2016 to bringing in wunderkind New Orleans Saints quality control assistant Joe Brady as his passing game coordinator last winter.

All the 30-year-old Brady did in his first season as a full-time paid college assistant was win the Frank Broyles Award as college football’s top assistant coach.

“This is Joe’s first full-time job,” said Orgeron. “Steve lets Joe be involved as much as I’ve ever seen an offensive coordinator let a passing game coordinator be involved.”

Brady became college football’s top assistant this year because quarterback Joe Burrow became college football’s most outstanding player — and won the Heisman Trophy — and vice versa.

Burrow exploded on the scene, from an Ohio State transfer and run-of-the-mill quarterback last year (.578 completion percentage, 2,894 yards, 16 touchdowns) to the most prolific quarterback in the nation this year (.779 completion percentage, 4,715 yards, 48 touchdowns).
Even more shocking has been Oklahoma’s resurgence on defense.

The Sooners ranked 114th in the nation in total defense last year, a school-record 453.8 yards allowed per game. But this year, OU is 24th nationally — a jump of 90 spots in the rankings — because, like Orgeron, Riley was committed to fixing the team’s weak link.

Enter Alex Grinch.

Like Burrow, the Sooners’ new defensive coordinator came from Ohio State (after three years at Washington State) and reinvigorated a once-proud defense that had lost its confidence.

“Defensively, no doubt we’ve played very well this year,” said Riley. “Give Coach Grinch (and) our staff a lot of credit. And then our players, the guys have bought into a new system, a new coach, new mentality, certainly, on that side of the ball. While we’re still improving, we have done a lot of good things and, we think, made some good progress.”

Grinch has been a defensive savior in Norman, but by far his toughest task lies ahead.

“Obviously, LSU is tough to stop,” said Riley. “They’ve done a great job all year. Joe Burrow’s had a great run, obviously played extremely well at the quarterback position. A lot of dynamic playmakers on the outside. And from what I’ve been able to see so far, their offensive line has done a great job as well.”

LSU has a 1,200-yard runner (5-foot-8, 209-pound sophomore Clyde Edwards-Helaire), two 1,200-yard receivers (6-1, 200-pound sophomore Ja’Marr Chase and 6-3, 192-pound junior Justin Jefferson) and a veteran offensive line that features two seniors, three juniors and three interior blockers who earned All-SEC accolades.

“It’s fortunate for us we do, through the years, get to see a bunch of really good offenses,” said Riley. “This will certainly be as good as they face.”

No doubt LSU’s defense (32nd overall at 341.3 yards per game, 24th against the run at 119.6 yards per game, 56th against the pass at 221.7 yards per game) will face its stiffest challenge of the season as well.
Like LSU, OU has thrived behind a transfer quarterback. Jalen Hurts, OU’s fifth Heisman Trophy finalist in the last four years, has been spectacular since transferring from Alabama, throwing for 3,634 yards and rushing for 1,255 yards.

And rest assured, Hurts won’t be fazed by facing the SEC champion. He’s never lost to the Tigers in his career — 2-0 as the Alabama starter and 1-0 as the backup.

“He’s an outstanding player, and he actually beat us with his feet,” said Orgeron. “He made big plays with his feet, and he threw the ball very well. I haven’t watched him at all this year, but I have watched coach Riley’s offense, especially that counter read.”

Hurts and Burrow are tied for the national lead for total touchdowns with 51 (Hurts has 32 passing, 18 rushing and 1 receiving), and he’s 9 yards per game behind Burrow in total offense (376.1).

Hurts’ rushing total is second by a quarterback in school history (just behind Jack Mildren’s 1971 mark of 1,289). Hurts has endured turnover problems — he has 13 in 13 games — but he’s been just what the Sooner offense needed between Kyler Murray and Spencer Rattler.
Kennedy Brooks caught fire down the stretch with three 100-yard efforts in his last five games and is on the verge of his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season (976).

OU’s most dynamic player this season has been wideout CeeDee Lamb, who caught 58 passes for 1,208 yards and 12 touchdowns. Lamb surpassed 100 yards in a game six times this season.

Replacing four starters on the offensive line has been a challenge for the Sooners but, despite injuries that shifted the lineup, production has remained high.

Both teams also have star power on defense.

Hurts and Co. will have to solve the likes of junior safety Grant Delpit (6-3, 203), first-team All-SEC and regarded as one of the best defensive backs in the country. True freshman cornerback Derek Stingley (6-1, 190) made second-team all-conference and leads the Tigers with six interceptions. Strong safety Jacoby Stevens (6-1, 228, Jr.) earned second-team All-SEC. Outside linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson (6-4, 250, So.) might be the Tigers’ most fearsome defensive player, earning first-team all-conference honors, and defensive end Rashard Lawrence (6-3, 308, Sr.) was named second-team All-SEC.

And Burrow must figure out middle linebacker Kenneth Murray (6-2, 234, Jr.), a first-team All-Big 12 performer who leads the Sooners not only in tackles (95) but in conveying Grinch’s attitude adjustment.

Sophomore defensive end Ronnie Perkins, who leads Oklahoma with six quarterback sacks, will miss the game due to suspension - meaning senior noseguard Neville Gallimore (6-2, 302) will need to shoulder more of the load up from. Gallimore has four sacks, two forced fumbles and has set the tone all year for the Sooners’ front seven.

Senior cornerback Parnell Motley (6-0, 180) has emerged this season as a lockdown cover man. All four earned All-Big 12 honors.

In years of service, Riley is still a youngster compared to Orgeron. But consider that Riley has now been to three College Football Playoffs as a head coach.
This is Orgeron’s first. The Sooners are playoff underdogs for the third time in three years under Riley, but sometimes experience can make a difference.

“We know how to do it. We’ve experienced it. We’ve lived it,” said Riley. “But then, you know, the makeup of the team’s different — new players this year, new staff members. A lot new about the team, so there’s always going to be people that haven’t experienced it yet either.

“So I think there’s a belief that it’s possible. But believing it’s possible and believing you really can do it are two different things.”

(John E. Hoover is an OU insider for KRXO The Franchise, lead columnist for and a contributor for Sporting News)