If not now, then when?

For Oklahoma fans, that has to be the mindset as it relates to the Playoff in 2021. This is the best opportunity to finally clear that hurdle. Or rather, that seemingly immovable boulder that blocked Oklahoma from reaching the top of the college football mountain.

Four Playoff berths, 4 Playoff semifinal losses. Three Playoff matchups vs. the SEC, 3 losses.

A Cotton Bowl blowout against Florida was a nice way to cap the season for Lincoln Riley’s team, but with the Gators’ top 3 pass-catchers out for the non-Playoff New Year’s 6 bowl, that game was hardly viewed as getting the proverbial Playoff monkey off the program’s back.

So why now?

Is it because Spencer Rattler is showing up in all the way-too-early mock drafts as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft? Not really. In case you forgot, the Sooners already had 2 of those Heisman Trophy-winning, No. 1 overall pick quarterbacks … both of whom lost to SEC teams in Playoff semifinal games.

What’s different now is Riley’s formula. It’s tweaked.

Oklahoma is no longer a team loaded with gobs of offensive talent with a subpar defense that’s just along for the ride. A top-30 defense returns 7 starters with a rising defensive coordinator in Alex Grinch. The Sooners ended the season with a 7-game stretch in which they allowed 17 points per game, and Texas Tech was the only team that surpassed 21 points (14 came in garbage time in the 4th quarter).

Oklahoma is also no longer a team reliant on recruiting and developing high school talent, either. In addition to landing what was expected to be the SEC’s top returning deep threat in Mike Woods (via Arkansas), Riley landed former blue-chippers Eric Gray (over 1,000 scrimmage yards in 2020), Wanya Morris (a former 5-star OL) and Key Lawrence (Tennessee’s top-rated 2020 signee) from the Jeremy Pruitt fallout in Tennessee.

If you can’t beat them (the SEC), join ’em.

Riley also went out and got Penn State quarterback Micah Bowens to add depth behind Rattler. The newly approved 1-time transfer rule, which now allows for undergraduates to play immediately instead of sitting a year, already appears to have made an impact in Norman.

The question surrounding the Sooners is clear as ever — will a stout defense and a ramped-up transfer portal presence be the difference this time?

To understand Oklahoma’s previous Playoff shortcomings, look at some of the key factors at play.

Here’s Oklahoma’s annual talent composite rankings dating back to when it was first tracked in 2015 (via 247sports):

  • 2015 — No. 16
  • 2016 — No. 18
  • 2017 — No. 16
  • 2018 — No. 11
  • 2019 — No. 8
  • 2020 — No. 9

Go figure that the Oklahoma team with the highest talent composite ranking (2019) suffered the biggest blowout Playoff loss, albeit to a historically dominant LSU squad. And that year was also when Riley got help from a big-time SEC transfer in Jalen Hurts. That was also Grinch’s first year at Oklahoma.

What was the problem then? Well, a middling defense (at best) didn’t stand much of a chance against LSU at full strength, much less after Ronnie Perkins was suspended.

When you look at the numbers, it’s pretty easy to explain why Oklahoma hasn’t had the right Playoff formula yet.

From 2011-16, Oklahoma didn’t sign a top-10 class. From 2017-21, 4 of the 5 classes ranked in the top 10. When you combine that with the new approach to transfers from Riley’s staff, there’s no reason the Sooners should fall out of the top 10 in terms of composite talent. At least not anytime soon.

The 2015 Clemson team was the lowest-ranked team (in talent composite) to win a Playoff game at No. 13. Of course, having Deshaun Watson certainly changed that. It also helped that Clemson had a rising star in Brent Venables to coach the defense. He’s now the highest-paid coordinator in the sport.

Of the 12 teams that won Playoff games since 247sports started tracking talent composite rankings, here’s the breakdown:

  • Top 5 — 2015 Alabama, 2016 Alabama, 2017 Alabama, 2017 Georgia, 2018 Alabama, 2019 LSU, 2020 Alabama, 2020 Ohio State
  • 6-9 — 2016 Clemson, 2018 Clemson, 2019 Clemson
  • Outside of top 10 — 2015 Clemson

That shows you something pretty obvious. That is, 2/3 of the teams that won a Playoff game were in the top 5 most talented teams in America entering their respective seasons. And all the rest were Clemson, which had Watson/Trevor Lawrence and Venables.

The question isn’t whether Oklahoma can be in the top 5 of the talent composite in 2021. The Sooners added some nice talent with the transfers, but they’ll likely be in that 6-9 range when the season kicks off. The better question is this — can Rattler and Alex Grinch replicate the Watson/Lawrence + Venables combo?

Oklahoma is living proof that you need more than a high-octane offense to win in Playoff semifinal games. You don’t need to be 2011 Alabama on defense, but nobody has won a Playoff game without a defense among the top 1/3 in FBS. Well, check that. Technically, 2020 Ohio State was No. 43 out of 128 FBS teams, which missed being a top 1/3 defense by 1 single point.

The 2020 Oklahoma defense was the program’s first to finish inside the top 1/3 in FBS since 2015. That 2015 team had Baker Mayfield and a top 1/3 defense, so why did it also get walloped in the Playoff? Go back to that talent composite ranking — No. 16. It was blown out by, ironically enough, the lowest-ranked talent composite team to win a Playoff game. But Clemson was still at least No. 13.

The 2021 Oklahoma team might check all 3 of those necessary boxes.

The big question mark is whether the Sooners can do something they haven’t done in a decade: produce top 1/3 defenses in consecutive years.

Three defensive players were drafted (edge Ronnie Perkins, cornerbacks Tre Brown and Tre Norwood) and 75% of the team’s defensive production was set to return entering spring, though obviously the transfer portal movement changed that. Brendan Radley-Hiles and Robert Barnes were the 2 Oklahoma defensive players who left for Power 5 schools, but both had up-and-down careers in Norman.

The formula at the core of Oklahoma’s defensive revival was all about getting pressure on the quarterback and capitalizing on mistakes (ask Florida about that). Grinch’s group was No. 3 among Power 5 teams in sacks and passing efficiency defense, which was a massive improvement from the No. 83-ranked passing efficiency group that allowed nearly 500 passing yards to Joe Burrow in 2019. There’s reason to believe that can continue without Perkins and with the turnover in the secondary.

Pro Football Focus tabbed Nik Bonitto as the top returning edge defender in college football after he had the highest pass-rush grade among all FBS edge-rushers and he generated a pressure 25.7% of the time. Bonitto and Jalen Redmond (PFF’s No. 4 returning interior DL) are expected to form an elite duo in the front 7, along with 6th-year senior and former 5-star linebacker Caleb Kelly. Redmond and Kelly were out for the 2020 season, which means they’re not part of that percentage of returning production stat.

Lawrence wasn’t part of that stat, either, but along with his 2 other former blue-chip Tennessee teammates who transferred to Oklahoma, he’ll be part of that 2021 talent composite ranking. He got a year to develop in Pruitt’s defense against SEC competition at Tennessee, where he played 105 snaps as a true freshman. As a 2020 recruit, Lawrence was heavily pursued by Oklahoma, which was why Grinch said in February “we know more about Key than so many guys who might be signing somewhere else today.”

It’ll be interesting to see how many of Lawrence and his fellow SEC-to-Oklahoma transplants become key contributors for Riley. Like, will Woods haul in a go-ahead 75-yard touchdown in a Playoff semifinal game against Georgia? Or will Morris have a key block that springs Gray open for a dagger score in Playoff semifinal game against Alabama? Or will that formula instead be reminiscent of the defensive-fueled showing that stymied Florida in the Cotton Bowl?

We don’t know those answers yet. We’ve got a little over 7 months to get to that point.

What seems clear is there are now at least more paths to victory for Oklahoma. That doesn’t guarantee it’ll produce a 7th consecutive Big 12 title (Iowa State will have something to say about that). And it certainly doesn’t guarantee that the Sooners will avoid a potential SEC buzzsaw in the semifinal.

Two years ago before the Peach Bowl, LSU linebacker Patrick Queen predicted that the Tigers were gonna “dominate,” and Oklahoma didn’t have anywhere near the firepower needed to make him eat his words. Last season, Florida linebacker James Houston said before the Cotton Bowl that the Gators planned on going out and showing that Oklahoma wasn’t on their level and that they weren’t on the SEC’s level. That obviously had a much different ending than the Peach Bowl, albeit with different stakes.

Like last year, this might not be the right Oklahoma team to call out. At the same time, the Sooners will continue to get that type of treatment until that trend changes on the Playoff stage. Maybe that day is coming soon.

And if this tweaked formula doesn’t work?

Well, don’t worry, Sooner fans. Playoff expansion will be here before you know it.