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Alamo Bowl: Oklahoma football expert previews the Arizona game, makes a score prediction

arizona-wildcats-football-oklahoma-sooners-preview-interview-personnal-2023-alamo-bowl-san-antonio Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

In winning its last six games, Arizona did so against familiar opponents from the Pac-12 Conference. Now comes a horse of a different color, one the Wildcats are helping to replace next year in their new league.

Oklahoma has been a longstanding member of the Big 12, the conference Arizona is joining in 2024. The Sooner won’t be part of it, though, as they are joining the SEC along with Texas in what was the opening move of this latest—and most disruptive—round of realignment.

According to DraftKings Sportsbook, Arizona is a 3-point favorite. The over/under is 61.

To better understand Oklahoma we reached out to Jack Shields of SB Nation site Crimson and Cream Machine for some insight. Here are his gracious answers to our cruel questions.

AZ Desert Swarm: Oklahoma went 10-2 during the regular season, its losses at Kansas and Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks not long after handing playoff participant Texas its only loss. How would you grade the season, and what went better or worse than expected?

Jack Shields: “Before the season began, I did predict OU to finish the regular season at 10-2, and I did state that I would be pleased with the result. I did, however, assume that a 10-2 record (7-2 in Big 12 play) would be enough to get them to (the Big 12 title game in) Arlington, but that was not the case. Even still, I was largely pleased with the improvement we saw from this team in Year 2 of the (Brent) Venables era. While the defense did start to show some cracks down the stretch, the defensive improvement from last season was readily apparent - particularly up front.

“The offense, at times, was unstoppable, and former OC Jeff Lebby does deserve some credit for it. Unfortunately, Lebby’s play calling in crucial moments of the games against Kansas and Oklahoma State left an awful lot to be desired. Additionally, the offensive execution could have been much better late in those games. It certainly feels like Oklahoma let the opponent off the hook on both occasions.

“All in all, I’d give it a B+ regardless of what happens this week. OU fans are not expecting the Sooners to dominate the SEC in 2024, but I think this season showed that the culture and roster composition is headed in the right direction.”

The Sooners have some major changes on offense for the bowl game, with quarterback Dillon Gabriel off to Oregon and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby now running Mississippi State. How do you expect the new QB and play callers to differ from the previous ones, and what are your expectations for the offensive gameplan?

“For this game in particular, I would expect the scheme to largely stay the same. (Seth) Littrell I’m sure we’ll see a few little wrinkles, but both Littrell and Joe Jon Finley were heavily involved in the game plans during the regular season, so I’d expect some continuity in this regard. The main question is whether or not the play calling will be a bit more conservative with a true freshman running the show, to which my answer would be ‘yes, slightly.’ Dillon Gabriel spent three years on this offense (one at UCF, two at Oklahoma), so he obviously had quite a command of things.

“What I will say is that (Jackson) Arnold has demonstrated maturity beyond his years. This was evidenced in the final drive at BYU. On a crucial third and seven, Arnold recognized something at the line of scrimmage and took it upon himself to audible to a slant. His judgement was correct, and he calmly hit Jalil Farooq for a game-clinching first down. This shows that he has a decent grasp of things, and with the additional time to prepare, I’d expect them to put a decent amount on his plate.”

Oklahoma’s defense allowed 22.3 points per game in the regular season, down significantly from 30 per game in 2022. What led to this improvement, and are there any portal/NFL Draft departures that could affect this unit for the bowl game?

“Beefing up the front seven has been one of the most crucial developments, and this was largely accomplished through the portal this past offseason. Additionally, the familiarity with the system has helped immensely, as the game seems to have slowed down for guys like Danny Stutsman. A year ago, you had a lot of guys looking over to the sideline right before the snap, and this has been a much less common occurrence in Year 2. As a result, linebackers and safeties are playing a lot less tentatively, and you’ve seen them make a lot of big plays as a result.

“Fortunately, Oklahoma’s defense will essentially have everyone at their disposal for this one. There haven’t been any huge portal losses, and with Stutsman, Billy Bowman, Ethan Downs, Jacob Lacey and DaJon Terry announcing their return, cornerback Woodi Washington is really the only contributor left on the board. Most assume Washington will declare after the game, but he has not opted out, so OU should have all major contributors available.”

Since bowl games can often be a time for a breakout performance by someone who didn’t have as big a role during the regular season, who are some lesser known Sooners who could use this as a springboard toward 2024?

“At the skill positions, I think WR Jaquaize Pettaway is a name to watch. The Houston native was a top-100 prospect in the 2023 class, but he hasn’t seen a ton of time since the early stages of the season. I’d expect him to have some opportunities to shine in this one. On the offensive line, true freshman Heath Ozaeta has drawn rave reviews at guard, and he might be thrown into the rotation with the portal departure of Cayden Green.

“Defensively, true freshman cornerbacks Jasiah Wagner, Makari Vickers and Jacobe Johnson have all shown promise and figure to be the future of the position group heading into the SEC. For this reason, I’d expect some, if not all, to see meaningful action on Thursday.”

Mike Stoops has connections to both schools, having been on OU’s staff from 1999-2003 and 2012-18 and coaching Arizona in between. What’s your favorite Stoops memory, good or bad?

“When nepo baby QB Chris Simms was leading the offense at Texas in the early aughts, Mike Stoops would frequently go out of his way to chide him in media settings. He would often ‘accidentally’ refer to him as ‘Phil.’ It actually got to the point that Chris told the UT beat writers that Mike was on his ‘bad list.’ His inclusion on said list didn’t make much of an impact, as Stoops’ defenses made him look silly in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

“Anyway, in the eyes of OU fans, Simms was kind of a caricature of the University of Texas — a diva with a sense of entitlement. Mike Stoops finding a way to get under his skin was just *chef’s kiss*.”

Prediction time. Does Arizona get the win and reach 10 in a season for just the fourth time in school history, or does Oklahoma end its Big 12 run with a victory? Give us a score pick.

“If OU had lost Stutsman and Bowman to the draft, I would have picked Arizona. With both coming back, I just think there’s a level of excitement for this game that wasn’t really present when the matchup was announced. People were a little disappointed to be left out of the New Years Six, but this team really seems motivated to finish what they started. Additionally, Arnold’s first start is creating a ton of buzz for the fan base, so I’d expect some good support for this team in San Antonio. I do think it will be close, because the Wildcats are playing as well as anyone right now, and I’m sure they’ll be motivated. I’ll go with a 35-31 OU victory.”

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.