College football odds: Does Oklahoma have the juice to cover massive spread vs. SMU?

Brent Venables’ first year in Norman, Oklahoma, was about as bad as it gets. A loss to Florida State in the Cheez-It Bowl capped off a 6-7 season, leaving the Sooners faithful shell-shocked. Now that the transition year is out of the way and a move to the SEC is on the horizon, this season is proving they can return to being a top program.

If Week 1 taught us anything, it’s that Venables isn’t going to take his foot off the gas. Oklahoma started the season by throttling Arkansas State, 73-0. QB Dillion Gabriel completed 19 of 22 passes for 308 yards, but everyone knows it’s the defense that’s going to be the barometer for Venables' progress. I don't know how much we can learn from the first game, but Oklahoma held the Red Wolves to 2.1 yards per rush, a 15% conversion rate on third/fourth downs, and 208 total yards.

This is the week where we find out. The Sooners host SMU as -15.5 point favorites. SMU QB Preston Stone invades Norman with a high-powered passing attack that finished seventh in all of college football in 2022. Stone threw for 348 yards and 3 TDs in his debut as a starter last week, propelling the Mustangs to a comfortable 38-14 win over Louisiana Tech. Is the Sooners defense a solid bet to slow down SMU and cover the spread? Here’s why I am betting on the underdog to keep this one close.

SMU +15.5 over Oklahoma

This seems more like a Lincoln Riley line than one I’d expect from a team that went 5-8 ATS last season. I understand we are turning the page on last season, but it’s hard to ignore Oklahoma losing a pair of home games outright (Kansas State, Baylor) as the betting favorites. I bet Oklahoma to finish over 9.5 wins, but it’s hard for me to justify this number without seeing the Sooners against better competition.

The Oklahoma defense is going to be tested in a big way on Saturday. SMU’s air-raid attack will aggressively go after Oklahoma’s secondary, which allowed 400+ passing yards in the final two games of 2022. Oklahoma had one of the worst defenses in Big 12 and allowed its conference opponents to score at least 38 points in six different games. Improvement is certainly on the table, but slowing down this Mustangs offense would be a drastic jump.

NORMAN, OKLAHOMA - SEPTEMBER 2:  Head coach Brent Venables of the Oklahoma Sooners leads his team down the field before a game against the Arkansas State Red Wolves at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on September 2, 2023 in Norman, Oklahoma.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

A key factor for the live betting audience will be the Sooners' defensive success on third downs. Venables’ defense couldn’t get anyone off the field last year. Opponents extended drives on 40.9% of third downs (87th overall). That’ll provide a solid early indicator if the Sooner defense is up to the challenge.

Whenever I see a big underdog that has a ton of scoring potential, it’s going to get my attention. Add in that they are facing an unproven defense coming off a season where they fell off a cliff and I’m going to get involved. SMU has the vertical speed to spread out of the Sooners, which opens up cut-back lanes for RB L.J. Johnson Jr. to gash defenses. The Mustangs' leading rusher had 128 yards on 9.1 yards per carry last week.

Now that Stone has his starting debut under his belt, look for him to be even more decisive and aggressive as the Mustangs eye the upset. In a game that means a lot for both programs, there is backdoor potential if Oklahoma holds a comfortable lead in the second half. The Sooners' ability to score isn’t in question. The total at 68.5 projects an approximate implied score of 42-26. I don't think that gives SMU’s offense enough credit, and expect Oklahoma to have to get to at least 49 to cover this large of a point spread. I’m betting on this being one of those wild back-and-forth games where each side exchanges touchdowns until one runs out of time. I will take the value with SMU keeping it competitive. Bet: SMU +15.5