Baylor road trip a major test for Sooners

NORMAN, Okla. -- Coming off a stunning upset at second-ranked USC last season, Stanford found itself a national contender in the post-Andrew Luck era.

The Cardinal, however, couldn’t dance around the ensuing pothole in its schedule: a Thursday night, nationally televised road trip to Washington. The 17-14 defeat ultimately prevented Stanford from seriously factoring into the national title picture, even though the Cardinal closed out the regular season with four consecutive victories over ranked opponents.

This season, Oklahoma will be tasked with a similar, though unfamiliar, test. In early November, the Sooners will travel to Baylor for their first Thursday (non-Nebraska) game in 21 years.

OU has played on Friday nights twice in the Bob Stoops era. But both those games were at Tulsa, and didn’t carry the pressure, eyeballs or degree of difficulty this Baylor game will.

And a closer look at these Bears using advanced metrics, coupled with the intangibles of a home team playing on a Thursday night, reveals this game could be almost as challenging as any on OU’s rugged schedule.

This year, ESPN will be using Expected Points Added as a college football metric that will survey game situations to measure how much a play or drive affects a team's chances of either scoring or preventing points. EPA greatly factors an opponent’s strength, too.

As ESPN Insider's Brad Edwards pointed out, Baylor had one of the top two offenses in college football in 2012 according to EPA, along with Texas A&M. The Bears did it with balance, too, ranking top five in the country in adjusted EPA on running and passing plays.

Such metrics underscore Baylor’s red-hot finish to the season. After giving the Sooners all they wanted in Norman in a 42-34 game, the Bears hammered top-ranked Kansas State the following week, knocked off Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, then routed UCLA in the Holiday Bowl.

The scary part is that Baylor’s offense could be even better in 2013.

Running back Lache Seastrunk is the odds-on favorite to be voted preseason Big 12 offensive player of the year after topping 100 yards in five of the Bears’ final six games last year.

New quarterback Bryce Petty has attempted only 10 passes in his career. Yet college football guru Phil Steele pegged him as his preseason All-Big 12 quarterback. Throw in a solid offensive line and a dangerous receiving corps headlined by veteran Tevin Reese and incoming blue-chip freshman Robbie Rhodes, and the Bears will have firepower.

Defensively, meanwhile, there are signs that Baylor might have turned a corner late last year to give its offense better support.

The same defense that surrendered 70 to West Virginia early in the year delivered its three best performances in those wins over Kansas State, Oklahoma State and UCLA. The Bears still gave up yards in those games, but they improved their defensive EPA by forcing more turnovers and sacks. As Edwards suggested, the Bears began to hone the team blueprint that made Oklahoma State so lethal in 2011.

Playing Baylor on a Thursday night should only make the game tougher, too. Dating back to Oregon State’s toppling of top-ranked USC in Corvallis five years ago, Thursday night games have been a handful for the road favorites. Whether it’s the thrill of playing on national TV or the student sections being more amped up, the home team seems to always have energy. Just ask Stanford.

OU’s defining stretch still resides earlier in the schedule, when the Sooners will take on Notre Dame on the road, TCU and Texas in consecutive games. That ultimately will determine whether the Sooners are contenders or pretenders for the Big 12 title and beyond.

But even if OU gets through that gantlet unscathed, landmines await -- notably, a season-ending trip to Stillwater.

Yet also, one tricky Thursday night road tilt.