Arizona vs. Oklahoma: Five things to know about the Wildcats' Alamo Bowl matchup
Arizona gets to take on a Big 12 power in its final game before moving into the Big 12. The Wildcats will look to show league commissioner Brett Yormark he won’t be missing much.
Few teams have been hotter over the second half of the season than the Arizona Wildcats, who will enter into the Alamo Bowl ranked No. 14 in the country and riding a six-game winning streak. People were slow to take on the Wildcats, and a win over No. 12 Oklahoma in the postseason would go a long way toward validating the success coach Jedd Fisch and Co. have enjoyed of late.
My take: Arizona wants to use this game to make a statement. The Wildcats had a case to go to a New Year’s Six bowl. They’re an exceptional team. Still, the Alamo Bowl against Oklahoma provides a platform to show the rest of the country this team is legit.
On the other side, Oklahoma (10-2) will be implementing a new offensive coordinator, a new play-caller, and a new quarterback. Year 2 under Brent Venables was a success, with a huge win over Texas in the Red River rivalry. The program is getting set to move into the SEC.
The game is set to take place on Dec. 28 at 6:15 p.m. PT on ESPN. Here are five things to know about the Sooners.
A new day in Norman
Oklahoma fans weren’t entirely beat up over Jeff Lebby leaving to take the head coaching job at Mississippi State. OU coach Brent Venables moved quickly to promote Seth Littrell — a name both OU and Arizona fans are familiar with — from his role as an offensive analyst up into the offensive coordinator role Lebby left behind. Littrell will technically be the co-OC alongside Joe Jon Finley, but Littrell will once again be calling plays.
The coaching pedigree is obvious. He played for Bob Stoops. He’s coached under Mike Leach and Kevin Wilson and Larry Fedora. He spent time with Mark Mangino. Oklahoma is in his blood, as is the Air Raid.
But Littrell isn’t “50 passes with a few runs sprinkled in” Air Raid. A former fullback in his playing days, he’s going to pair an efficient downfield pass with a power run game. North Texas was either first or second in run efficiency each of Littrell’s last three years in Denton.
OU went with an in-house move rather than an outside hire in large part to keep the terminology consistent for freshman quarterback Jackson Arnold (more on him in a bit). Continuity seems like a big factor in the hire.
Littrell isn’t expected to institute wholesale changes, but rather take what the Sooners excelled at and keep that going while fine-tuning on the edges. He’ll get into 11 and 12 personnel and run the football — Oklahoma was 10th in the Big 12 this season in rushing efficiency — but he’ll also adapt to what he has.
That provides the potential for more of a smorgasbord of things for Arizona to deal with in the Alamo Bowl. Do you prepare for what Oklahoma has been under Lebby? Or do you prepare for, say, North Texas under Littrell? Arizona’s coaching staff will likely do a bit of both.
Arnold era begins
Oklahoma quarterback Dillon Gabriel announced this week he was hitting the transfer portal. That turns the reins of the offense firmly over to Arnold, the former 5-star recruit from Denton (Texas) Guyer.
Gabriel threw for 3,660 yards and 30 touchdowns this season while adding 12 more touchdowns on the ground. With one more season, Gabriel could challenge for the all-time passing touchdowns record. (Thirty would tie Case Keenum’s 2007 mark; 31 would break it.)
With OU going from that guy to a true freshman making his first career start, expect some growing pains.
Arnold has appeared in six games this season. He has 18 completions on 24 attempts for 202 yards. He’s also run that ball 20 times for 78 yards. As a senior in high school, Arnold threw for nearly 3,500 yards and ran for just shy of 1,000. He’s a capable runner when given the opportunity.
How much he’s allowed to do in this bowl game will be a fascinating subplot to watch. This will be a test of sorts of the Littrell-Arnold combo before Oklahoma moves into the SEC and the intensity turns up.
Arizona ranks 41st nationally in defensive havoc rate and was able to get teams into passing downs at a fairly decent rate. Can the Wildcats get Arnold to play behind the sticks and then force some mistakes? OU was among the country’s most efficient offenses this season; winning on first down will be big here.
Pass catchers aplenty
There’s a more than capable trio of pass-catchers for Arnold to lean on. Senior Drake Stoops has 78 receptions for 880 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Redshirt freshman Nic Anderson has 31 catches for 725 yards — a Big 12-leading 23.4 per-catch average — and nine scores. Jalil Farooq has 41 receptions for 637 yards and two scores.
Stoops is the intermediate guy, with an average depth of target around 7 yards and more than 400 yards after the catch this season. He’s a slot star and deadline on screens.
The 6-foot-4 Anderson is the big play waiting to happen. His average depth of target is 17 yards, which ranks as the second longest among qualified Big 12 receivers.
Boom or bust
Switching to the other side of the football, Arizona would seemingly have a huge advantage on paper. OU is 34th nationally in defensive success rate (not bad) but it’s a unit that is heavily dependent on creating plays in the backfield.
The Sooners rank 12th nationally in raw tackles for loss created. They have 88 in 12 games. Linebacker Danny Stutsman is a machine. (This is not a team that generates sacks, though. They have 19 in 12 games.)
But the Sooners are also 121st nationally in defending explosive plays. They’ve given up 61 plays of at least 20 yards this season.
How does that unit fare against a metronome-like Arizona offense? The Wildcats are sixth nationally in success rate. Arizona has the ability to bite off chunk plays, but it also doesn’t rely on them to move the football.
Noah Fifita consistently makes good decisions. The ground game has largely been effective this year. Oklahoma is going to have to find creative ways to come up with splash plays in the backfield.
How close to full strength will the Sooners be?
This question can apply to every team moving forward, really. Since the transfer portal opened on Monday, OU has seen nine players enter. That includes Gabriel, the team’s No. 2 and No. 3 tailbacks, and the defense’s fifth-leading tackler.
Opt-outs will also be a concern.
Will Oklahoma be impacted by the combination of portal departures and NFL Draft opt-outs? And to what degree?
Arizona will be dealing with the same questions.