The day after the national championship game brings our first real opportunity to look ahead to next season.
Oklahoma has been widely forecast as a strong contender for the 2021 national championship, and the early returns — “way too early” is the appropriate buzzword — support that.
Rivals has the Sooners projected as the No. 1 team in the nation.
Meanwhile, 247 Sports, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports and The Athletic all pick Oklahoma No. 2.
ESPN, Athlon and Fox Sports analyst Joel Klatt ranks the Sooners No. 3 for next year.
And Sporting News projects OU as the fourth-best team in the nation in 2021.
While most publications are sticking with Alabama or Clemson as next year's No. 1 team, Rivals believes the Sooners are in for a special year.
“Oklahoma returns an amazing receiving corps, have talent at running back and have Spencer Rattler with a season under his belt,” writes Rivals’ Mike Farrell. “The defense has improved greatly and the Sooners should easily run through the Big 12 next year with fewer growing pains than they had this season.”
Quarterback Spencer Rattler is the motivation behind a lot of the Sooners’ early rankings. Rattler earned Big 12 player of the year accolades from Pro Football Focus and with a big season next year figures to find himself in New York as the latest Lincoln Riley Heisman finalist.
247 Sports likes how Rattler led the Sooners to a strong finish this year.
“The Sooners looked quite explosive in bowl season, and return star Spencer Rattler at quarterback with Heisman Trophy hopes,” writes 247 Sports’ Sam Hellman. “All of 247Sports’ national experts think highly of Oklahoma in 2021, but analyst Brandon Marcello sees enough from Lincoln Riley and company to rank OU as the top team in the country.
“Oklahoma won its last eight games of the season to finish with a 9-2 overall record and a Big 12 Championship. OU smashed Florida, 55-20, in the Cotton Bowl behind three touchdowns from Rattler and a combined 296 rushing yards and two touchdowns from Rhamondre Stevenson and Marcus Major.”
Bleacher Report made a case for OU as a top-four team in 2020 — and says the Sooners are certainly positioned for success in 2021.
“By the end of the year, Oklahoma was arguably the fourth-best team in the country behind Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State,” write’s Bleacher Report’s Kerry Miller.
“While all three of those teams will need to replace their starting quarterbacks and a bunch of other key contributors, the Sooners will be led by a lot of the same players who guided them through their active eight-game winning streak.
“They'll also be reintroducing a star player, as Kennedy Brooks — who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in both 2018 and 2019 — will return to Norman after sitting out this season. That's huge news for a team that averaged 43 points and nearly 500 yards per game without him.
“The Sooners should also get back the majority of a defense that — by Big 12 and Oklahoma standards — was pretty stingy. If Oklahoma can adequately replace defensive backs Tre Norwood and Tre Brown (combined for eight interceptions in 2020), it might be the best team in the country.”
The Athletic is impressed by Riley’s offensive firepower, of course, but says the key to a legit run next year is the Oklahoma defense.
“Lincoln Riley should have another loaded offense with QB Spencer Rattler, WRs Marvin Mims and Theo Wease and, back from opt-out, stud RB Kennedy Brooks,” writes The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel. “But it’s OU’s much-improved defense that inspires so much confidence. Star DE Ronnie Perkins turned pro, but All-American LB Nik Bonitto, All-Big 12 D-linemen Isaiah Thomas and Perrion Winfrey, top tackler Brian Asamoah and several other starters are returning.”
ESPN similarly believes that Rattler will be a key to OU returning to glory in 2021.
“It has been two decades since the Sooners last won a national championship, and they'll have a chance to end that drought if things fall right in 2021,” ESPN’s Mark Schlabach writes. “Quarterback Spencer Rattler improved throughout his first season starting and will be a leading Heisman Trophy contender next season. Five other starters are expected back on offense, although (Rhamondre) Stevenson's departure stings.
“OU expects to bring back (Kennedy) Brooks, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2019 who opted out this past season. Wide receiver Charleston Rambo, who started the past two seasons, entered the transfer portal.
"Defensively, the Sooners have made great strides under coordinator Alex Grinch. This past season, they ranked second in the Big 12 in scoring defense (21.7 points) and run defense (105.1 yards) and third in total defense (350.6). OU's nonconference schedule in 2021 is more than manageable with a road contest at Tulane and home games against Nebraska and FCS program Western Carolina.”
Klatt, who’s always taken a pragmatic approach at Oklahoma and the Big 12 (he played quarterback at Colorado) likes what Oklahoma brings to the table next fall.
“Their defense looks so much better this year,” Klatt said in a roundtable video with Fox Sports studio analysts Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. “They have good backs, they have really good was, and Rattler is gonna be a difference maker.”
Said Bush, “I would have loved to see them in a true power football playoff system (this season). I would have loved to see what they would do.”
And CBS Sports thinks Lincoln Riley’s 2021 squad might be his best yet.
“This has a chance to be Lincoln Riley's best team at Oklahoma,” writes CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd. “After two seasons, one as a starter, Spencer Rattler is just now reaching his peak. Remember Kennedy Brooks? The tailback opted out in 2020 after consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. The Sooners should grab a seventh straight Big 12 title.”
Athlon, one of the leading college football preseason publications, believes Year 3 under Grinch could produce some memorable moments for OU.
“The Sooners just missed the College Football Playoff in 2020 for the first time under coach Lincoln Riley. Don’t expect that trend to continue in ’21,” writes Athlon’s Steven Lassan. “Riley’s offense will be explosive once again, but Oklahoma’s defense took a big step forward in ’20 under coordinator Alex Grinch. After giving up 27.3 points a game and 5.6 yards per play, the Sooners cut those totals to 21.7 a contest and 5.2 a snap.
“Look for this group to continue improving in 2021, especially if tackle Isaiah Thomas and linebacker Nik Bonitto pass on the NFL after end Ronnie Perkins declared early. Nose guard Perrion Winfrey, lineman Jalen Redmond, linebacker Brian Asamoah and cornerbacks Woodi Washington and D.J. Graham are rising stars that will only help the defense continue to grow in ’21.
“Oklahoma has averaged more than 40 points a game for six straight years and that streak should continue with quarterback Spencer Rattler at the helm. There’s plenty of skill talent, but Riley and line coach Bill Bedenbaugh will have some retooling to do with center Creed Humphrey and right tackle Adrian Ealy off to the NFL.
“The schedule breaks favorably for Oklahoma in 2021. Riley’s team opens with a date at Tulane and a home matchup against Nebraska in non-conference play. Iowa State, TCU and West Virginia visit Norman, with Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State coming on the road. And of course, there’s the annual showdown against Texas in Dallas.”
Sporting News likes the skill-position players Rattler has to work with.
“The Sooners were one of the hottest teams at the end of the 2020 season, and Spencer Rattler should be even better in his second year as a starter under coach Lincoln Riley,” writes SN’s Bill Bender. “The tandem of Marcus Major and Seth McGowan in the running game should be fantastic, and Marvin Mims and Theo Wease should be Rattler’s top two targets.
“The defense improved too, though some key players have a decision to make with the 2021 NFL Draft. Oklahoma will be an ‘it’ team after the strong finish and Cotton Bowl victory against Florida. Will that lead to a fifth CFP appearance?”