The inimitable Michael Wilbon once gave a fascinating talk to Northwestern sports journalism students in which he examined the gap between the rhetoric that comes out of team leaders, and the physical and psychological realities that they face on the field.
A former Washington Post writer with Chicago ties, the ESPN analyst described how Chicago Cubs acquisitions used to play down the “Curse of the Billy Goat” surrounding the organization. (This was of course before the Cubbies finally won a World Series in 2016.) “I don’t know nothing about no curse,” he paraphrased a typical new face in the Cubs dugout as saying. “It’s not relevant to me or this ballclub or the assets I’m bringing to the table.”
Yeah, right. The ballplayers would spend just a few weeks in the Windy City, Wilbon explained, and then begin to understand. Questions about The Curse. Newspaper stories about The Curse. Hecklers from opposing fan bases yelling catcalls about The Curse. The entire Chicago baseball culture was practically swimming in its own superstition – and yes, it eventually affected everyone’s play on the diamond.
The Curse impacted the odds at baseball betting sites, too…at least those run by wise odds-makers who understood sports psychology.
Gridiron rivalries are kind of like that. “It’s just another game,” coaches like to say. “We’re not doing anything differently.” Who are they really kidding?
If the Eagles and Giants might as well be any 2 NFL teams having a scrum, then point spreads for New York vs Philadelphia wouldn’t funnel inexorably toward even. If Georgia vs Georgia Tech didn’t matter beyond the standings, it wouldn’t be known as Clean Old Fashioned Hate.
And if Oklahoma vs Oklahoma State were just another football game, it wouldn’t be known as Bedlam.
Oklahoma vs OSU: Bedlam Point Spread and Moneyline Handicapping
Speaking of psychology, Oklahoma State’s head coach Mike Gundy does not sound like a happy man.
His program, not known for outstanding defense, has somehow been able to contain offenses from powerful schools over the past few weeks. Texas barely managed 400 yards against the Cowboys, and Kansas State QB Skylar Thompson barely managed 50% completions on 22 attempts when OSU visited Manhattan in October. Yet Gundy’s team has played poorly in the Red Zone, has committed too many turnovers and penalties, and is a loser of 3 of its last 4 games.
Head coaches are politicians and PR men by trade, so it helps to pay attention to the topics and key-words they choose as opposed to whether the message sounds positive or negative overall. Rare is the coach who says, “Life sucks and none of this is worth it.” Instead, the HC of a struggling squad might talk about life’s challenges and diminishing returns, but finish by talking about “developing these young men for the future,” the football-coach version of “God bless the United States of America.”
Consider Gundy’s message as Bedlam looms this Saturday afternoon in Norman. “(Players) have to motivate themselves. They have to buy into the culture, the system, to do it,” he told assembled reporters on Wednesday. “I can’t be on an emotional roller coaster. I just can’t. It’s too hard. It’s a long season and I have to stay even-keeled the best I can. I try to coach the coaches and let the coaches coach the players.”
There’s nothing offensive or irrational about any of that, but note that the topic is Mike Gundy. Not the squad or the rivalry battle to come. A skipper’s job isn’t simply to “coach the coaches” and wait for the team to motivate itself. Gundy is a man, he’s 40 (er…actually 51 now), and should know that.
But if Oklahoma State is suffering from an on-campus crisis of confidence, it’s nothing compared to how the betting public feels about their chances. The consensus point spread for Bedlam opened giving 6th-ranked Oklahoma 2 touchdowns and a field goal, but the line has shot wider as heavy action on OU-to-cover is flooding sportsbooks.
Sportsbetting.ag currently takes (-21) from the favored Sooners, and the book’s Over/Under total of (79 ½) is actually conservative compared to the 80+ points the contest is getting elsewhere in Vegas.
Oklahoma is a (-1500) moneyline favorite with almost a 10-to-1 payoff line on the underdog Cowboys (+975).
Sooners Seeing Red
OU’s season would look just peachy if it wasn’t for the color red. That’s strange to say, since the Sooners’ jerseys themselves are a variety of red.
It was the Red River Showdown with Texas that put the Crimson & Cream in the loss column. QB Kyler Murray had a marvelous day, passing for 300+ yards and 4 touchdowns and leading the offense in rushing. But a furious late comeback failed to turn the trick after the defense surrendered 45 points in the first 3 quarters.
The Sooners nearly dropped another at Texas Tech last weekend. Murray was intercepted twice early in the contest, and another mediocre performance by the OU defense nearly put the team in a hole it couldn’t crawl out of. But sophomore RB Trey Sermon rushed for 206 yards and scored twice in the final frame to give the visitors an anxious 51-46 victory.
Murray will probably be a professional baseball player in 2019 and onward. But right now, his dual-threat ability is the Sooners’ best hope for a Big 12 title. The elusive, rocket-armed field general has only been sacked 9 times while throwing 31 touchdown passes with only 5 picks on the year. A trademark run-blocking OL has gashed opposing defenses, allowing 6.7 yards per carry out of a deep backfield. But when things break down and 3rd and long must be converted, it’s the QB’s ability to improvise and scramble that allows the team to extend drives and light up the scoreboard.
The Vegas point total is pushing (80) for a reason, though. Oklahoma’s defense ought to be able to contain mid-tier conference rivals, enough those known for wide-open offense like TTU. Kicker Austin Siebert has only made 9 field goals this season, but he’s only attempted 11 as Lincoln Riley has felt compelled to either go for broke on 4th down or punt opponents deep. You would, too, if your defense was ranked 60th in the FBS…mirroring the squad’s national ranking except with the decimal point in the wrong spot.
There are bright spots on the defensive side. Kenneth Murray is a bruising linebacker who leads the team in tackles and sacks, and posted multiple tackles-for-loss in a 52-27 win over Texas Christian. But he failed to get to Sam Ehlinger when the Longhorns upset the Sooners on October 6th.
Can Murray pass and run all over the slumping OSU Cowboys? Probably. He’s got Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb to throw to over the middle and in the corner of the end zone, and a strong ground game to ward-off opposing pass rushers despite Rodney Anderson’s season-ending injury.
But I’m not convinced that the Oklahoma D can play well enough to cover a 3-touchdown spread against a high-octane rival with a large fan contingent making the short trip to Norman this weekend.
Cowboys Can Still Rustle-Up Points
Oklahoma State has an athletic LB corps. The program has had an athletic, highly-touted LB corps for the last 200 seasons under Mike Gundy (he’s a man, he’s 300) and will continue to recruit blue-chip linebackers in the future. It doesn’t matter. The OSU defense will always give up a healthy amount of points, because the organizational focus of the program is to score points as fast as possible. When you hold track meets instead of football games, even the toughest and meanest front-7 in the world won’t be able to turn the Decathlon into mud wrestling.
But whether or not Oklahoma State will ever have an above-average Power-5 defense is beyond the scope of this prediction. A 21-point spread assumes that either Murray and his WRs will have such an explosive day that the Sooners score 70+ points, or that the Cowboy offense will look anemic.
I’m not buying either of those ideas. OSU’s low point on offense came when visiting Texas Tech held QB Taylor Cornelius to less than 50% passing accuracy during a 41-17 beatdown in late September. The October loss at Kansas State was similarly frustrating. But over the last 2 contests the Cowboys have looked a lot more like their normal prolific selves with the egg in hand.
Cornelius had a fine outing in the 38-35 win over Texas, a team that Oklahoma was unable to beat. Junior RB Justice Hill punished the Longhorns with 1st-down conversions as OSU did not turn the ball over once.
Should last week’s 35-31 loss to Baylor scare away bets on the underdog for Bedlam? Sure, but only on the moneyline. Oklahoma State didn’t look bad on offense and only committed a single turnover (a fumble by little-used Taylan Wallace) unless you count a blocked punt by Baylor that resulted in a key touchdown. Cornelius is no longer in a slump even as his team struggles to seal the deal on Saturdays.
Handicapping Bedlam: My Pick on the Point Spread
Oklahoma State was favored to beat Oklahoma last season. I wrote at the time that it was ridiculous for bettors not to take the underdog to cover or win straight-up, given the history of the rivalry, OSU’s never-ending flakiness on defense, and the payoff odds. Sho’ nuff…OU won 62-52.
This year, the betting value is almost a mirror image. Oklahoma State should not be a 3-touchdown underdog after having beaten Texas, and not following 2 strong performances from a much-maligned QB. The Big 12 is still scant on great defenses but nobody can say the conference isn’t getting deeper, with teams like Baylor and Kansas having slugged their way out of the cellar of the FBS.
OSU’s 2-4 league record is sorely disappointing, but nothing to be ashamed of, and despite Gundy’s telling, defensive press conference (and his defense’s telling failure trying to stop people) the visitors from Stillwater will have more than enough in the tank to challenge OU for at least 2-3 quarters.
Finally, if the Sooners do take a comfortable lead into the 2nd half, the game’s status as a religiously-watched battle for bragging rights should take precedence over Riley’s concerns about margin-of-victory. I wouldn’t expect Murray to be launching bombs if Oklahoma is up by 20 points with 5 or 10 minutes to go. The hosts will be happy to lead and run the clock out on a hated enemy.