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Why Oklahoma's Ability to Develop a D-Line Will Dictate the Sooners' Future

Answering your questions after the early signing period, plus whether the SEC would give up its conference title game to expand the playoff.

The first day of the early signing period is in the books, and you have questions…

From Vinoj: Please confirm my bias that my school has the best signing class with real gems that others didn’t find and that this is a springboard to something special in a year or two.

Without knowing Vinoj’s fandom, I can assure him of a few things: His favorite team just signed a bunch of young men who are even better people than they are players—and that’s pretty amazing since all of them look like they could start right away at any program in the country. Fortunately, the coach of Vinoj’s favorite team is a classic molder of men who will ensure these young people represent the school with the utmost integrity before they decide between accepting Rhodes Scholarships and becoming first-round draft picks. Meanwhile, Vinoj’s rival team just handed out duffel bags of cash to a bunch of dudes who will probably end up serving 15-20 when they get popped on their third armed robbery charges.

[Sees Vinoj’s Twitter handle]

Since Vinoj is an Oklahoma fan, I’m assuming he asked this question with tongue planted firmly in cheek. His team has won four consecutive Big 12 titles, made the College Football Playoff two seasons in a row and produced the past two Heisman Trophy winners. The Sooners don’t really need a springboard to anything. But do you know what they do have? DJ booths with magic turntables that play videos off of vinyl. (If the university owns the patent, ca-ching.)

Also, I’m on board with any offensive lineman who wants to use IHOP in his Twitter handle. It works on so many levels.

In all seriousness, the challenge for Lincoln Riley is signing difference-making defensive lineman. Barry Switzer pointed out six years ago that Sooners were deficient in that area, and it remains the most glaring flaw in a program that does almost everything else perfectly. I’d be full of it if I tried to predict whether any of the six defensive linemen Oklahoma signed on Wednesday will correct that issue, but I do know that recruiting better defensive linemen was a priority Riley identified immediately after he was promoted to head coach in June 2017. This is the culmination of the first full recruiting cycle since then. Since Riley has proven more than competent at almost all aspects of running a program, it’s reasonable to be confident in his ability to improve this area of the roster.

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But that isn’t a slam dunk. While recruiting rankings can miss individually, they tend to be fairly accurate in the aggregate. So it should be noted that none of the defensive linemen Oklahoma signed Wednesday are in the top 10 in the nation in their position groups according to the 247Sports composite. Oklahoma has signed just two such players in the past three classes. Alabama, however, signed three such players. Clemson didn’t sign any this year but signed four last year. Ohio State signed one this year and five last year. These are Oklahoma’s peers. These are the programs Oklahoma must recruit like if it wants to get over the hump and win the playoff instead of just making it.

How the players the Sooners signed Wednesday will develop also will depend on whom Riley hires to run the defense. We should have an answer to that question shortly after Oklahoma’s season ends. The future is very bright in Norman, so no springboard is necessary.

From David: Conventional wisdom had North Carolina’s hire of Mack Brown as a disaster. Things went fever pitch when Greg Robinson's name surfaced. Since then, Mack has assembled what appears to be a quality staff, who did some nice things on the recruiting front today. Tiny sample size, sure, but your impressions so far?

The backlash about the potential Robinson hire wasn’t because of Robinson’s age (67, same as Brown) as much as his lack of success as the head coach at Syracuse (2005–08) and as Michigan’s defensive coordinator (2009–10). It’s easy to understand why Brown would want to hire Robinson because Robinson did a fair job as the Texas interim defensive coordinator in 2013, also known as Brown’s final season in Austin. But Brown’s other hires have made a lot of sense.

New North Carolina tight ends coach Tim Brewster was Brown’s ace recruiter during his first stint at North Carolina, and much more recently he’s been one of Jimbo Fisher’s more valuable recruiters at Florida State and Texas A&M. (Brewster’s lack of success as Minnesota’s head coach has been forgiven because ’crootin.) That move helped restore faith in what Brown is doing in Chapel Hill, as did his other early hires.

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Safeties coach Tommy Thigpen played for Brown at North Carolina and served this past year on Larry Fedora’s staff, so he can act as a bridge between the new staff and the old. This can be critical for team chemistry. Meanwhile, cornerbacks coach Dre Bly is a North Carolina legend who can testify that playing for Brown in Chapel Hill can lead to a successful college and NFL career.

Whether this all will work remains a huge question mark. Unlike new Kansas coach Les Miles, who was fired at LSU for an unwillingness to change, Brown was willing to change in his final years at Texas. In fact, he tried just about everything. It’s just that none of it worked. But it seems more likely that Brown will be willing to adapt to the game as it is now.

It’s tough to judge the new staff based on the brief time it had to recruit, but Brown’s group did flip in-state prospects who had originally committed to Florida State (quarterback Sam Howell), Penn State (receiver Emery Simmons) and rival NC State (offensive lineman Triston Miller). The fact that the Tar Heels, after the two seasons they’ve just had, could flip players with interest from those schools suggests this staff did an excellent job selling dreams.

Now they need to turn those dreams into wins.

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From @noFlyzone_1: Likely the SEC gets rid of championship game to expand the playoffs?

Not a chance. The SEC will defend its title game to the bitter end because the league considers the game part of its identity. Besides, the way the playoff ultimately will change will make that game even more valuable.

The playoff eventually will expand to eight—though not as quickly as a spin on the talk radio dial would have you believe—and the only reason conferences such as the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 would bother trying to expand the playoff is to guarantee access for their champions. The compromise the leagues will make will involve all five Power Five champs getting spots and either a guaranteed spot for the highest ranked Group of Five champ (with stipulations based on ranking) and two wild card spots or three wild card spots. Guaranteeing spots for the five Power Five champs automatically raises the stakes for each conference championship games, making them worth more as television properties.

If the leagues are smart, they’ll copy the Big 12’s model and ditch divisions and play their No. 1 team against their No. 2 team in the league title game. This would severely limit the possibility of football’s version of basketball’s bid thieves and produce better matchups in general.

Would there be times when both teams in a title game would essentially be locks to make the playoff? (This year’s Alabama-Georgia title game, for example.) Of course. That would happen every once in a while. But most title games would only be winner-gets-in, and that would be high drama. So if the games are producing more drama and more TV money, they aren’t going anywhere.

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From @DawgPhan: What bowl game has the best “eating contest?”

That’s easy. It’s the Lawry’s Beef Bowl held between the two teams playing in the Rose Bowl. Few things in life are more exciting than being encouraged to eat as much prime rib as humanly possible.