Watch Out for Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma in 2016

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistDecember 31, 2015

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) and wide receiver Sterling Shepard (3) look up at the scoreboard during the second half of the Orange Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game against Clemson, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, in Miami Gardens, Fla.  (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

In the lead-up to the playoffs, Oklahoma players made frequent mention of how much last season's Russell Athletic Bowl loss to Clemson motivated their pursuits in 2015. Just imagine what they're going to do with this latest defeat.

The Sooners went from a program without direction to one that bulldozed its way into the semifinals in less than 12 months. Though losing 37-17 to Clemson in Thursday's Orange Bowl wasn't the way they hoped that turnaround would end, it's not really the completion of this story.

Considering the success that came from offseason changes to the coaching staff and game plan, as well as a slew of key players coming back, there's no reason to think Oklahoma's 2016 season won't include a trip to either the Fiesta or Peach bowls for another run at a national title.

Just think about it: another year of Baker Mayfield gunslinging through the Big 12, as well as a loaded nonconference schedule. Another year of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, arguably the best rushing duo in the country. And though several notable starters will either graduate or turn pro, another year of defensive coordinator Mike Stoops managing to slow down the potent attacks in the nation's most prolific offensive conference, the Big 12.

Oh, and also another year of Bob Stoops proving he's still got it.

A year ago at this time, there wasn't anyone who seriously considered Oklahoma a playoff contender—anyone who claims otherwise is lying—but many wondered if Stoops' time in Norman was finally coming to an end. After 16 seasons, maybe a change of leadership was necessary.

Bleacher Report's Ben Kercheval didn't suggest that, but he did offer that what Oklahoma did in 2015 would go a long way toward determining its long-term future:

The year ahead becomes a crucial one for Stoops to show that he still has it. The three times Stoops finished with eight wins or fewer in a season, his teams have bounced back to double-digit wins the following year. Can he do it a fourth time? His legacy with Oklahoma and how it's crafted going forward may depend upon it.

Well, whaddaya know.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

First, there was the coaching staff overhaul. Co-offensive coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell were let go, replaced by Lincoln Riley from East Carolina, a move that earned both praise and uncertainty. This change came with a promise to return to the Air Raid pass attack that had been so successful for the Sooners during the peak of Stoops' tenure, even though they had one of the best running backs in the country in Perine.

The key, though, was finding the right quarterback.

That proved to be Mayfield, the transfer from Texas Tech who unsuccessfully petitioned to be eligible in 2014 and who had to watch as Trevor Knight et al combined to throw 17 interceptions and average 203.5 passing yards per game. Experienced in the Air Raid, but also with a penchant for scrambling, Mayfield might be that piece the Sooners had been missing of late.

And his return, more than anything else, should be why the Sooners will be a contender again next season.

Mayfield had one of his worst games of the year against Clemson yet still threw for 311 yards and a touchdown. It wasn't until he threw the first of his two interceptions, late in the third quarter, that it didn't seem possible for the fiery junior to pull off another comeback. He accounted for 43 TDs in 13 games, throwing himself into harm's way on nearly every play but almost always getting right back up.

Dec 31, 2015; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) is sacked by Clemson Tigers defensive end Kevin Dodd (98) in the third quarter of the 2015 CFP Semifinal at the Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Kl
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Not being able to pick up yards on the ground is what limited Mayfield's impact. He finished with a season-low minus-15 yards on 10 carries, gaining 18 yards on one scamper two plays before that first INT.

It was somewhat ironic that Mayfield's final play of 2015 involved him taking another hard hit, courtesy of the knee of Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware, as Mayfield tried to make a tackle following an interception. Mayfield wasn't able to be a part of last year's loss to Clemson, but that didn't stop him from using that as a driving force.

Mayfield and all of his returning teammates will have the memories of this Orange Bowl loss to keep them occupied during the offseason, and when 2016 begins, that will provide great fuel to navigate an arduous schedule.

The Sooners face Houston, Ohio State and TCU in the first five weeks of next season, games that could either thwart their push to return to the playoffs or serve as a major springboard. Either way, they won't be an afterthought.


Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.