Dec. 28—ORLANDO, Fla. — It's not where Oklahoma thought it would be at the end of the season.
The Sooners were picked in the preseason to finish as the Big 12 runner-up. Instead, the Sooners (6-6) finished eighth and were selected to play in the Cheez-It Bowl.
However, Thursday night's game at 4:30 p.m. CT presents an opportunity. The Sooners will matchup with the 13th-ranked Florida State Seminoles (9-3), which ended the season with five straight wins and enters the bowl game as one of the nation's hottest teams.
Both teams enter the game with different roster situations. Florida State's roster will mostly be at full strength, while the Sooners will be without running back Eric Gray, wide receiver Theo Wease, defensive lineman Jalen Redmond and offensive linemen Wanya Morris and Anton Harrison.
But that should give a few of the Sooners' younger players a chance to play additional snaps against a highly-ranked team. And if they can win, the Sooners will secure a winning record.
Here's three things the Sooners must do to secure a victory in the Cheez-It Bowl:
1. Find production without Gray
With Gray gone, and redshirt junior Marcus Major out with an injury, the Sooners will have to look at their youth.
Fortunately for them, their main option has experience.
True freshman Jovantae Barnes, who's expected to be the starting running back against the Seminoles, has appeared in 10 games this season and ranks second on the team in rushing attempts (89) and yards (411). Barnes operated as the team's No. 2 running back behind Gray and averaged a solid 4.6 yards per game, though this will be his first real test as a Sooner.
So who will back up Gray? That will likely also be a true freshman, Gavin Sawchuck.
Sawchuck hasn't seen the field much this season — he has two carries for five yards on the season — but the potential is there. The former four-star recruit rushed for over 2,000 yards and 28 touchdowns during his senior season at Valor Christian High School.
Sawchuck said he's learned a lot from watching Gray, and he's hoping his name is called.
"I've prepared like I had opportunity for every (game)," Sawchuck said. "You never know what happens in the game of football. The minute that you're not prepared, that's when your name gets called and then you're not ready. I was prepared. I was ready. But I'm excited for the opportunity I have and I can't wait for it."
2. Limit Jordan Travis' versatility
The Sooners have struggled all season with dual-threat quarterbacks. They may face their toughest test of the season with Travis.
The Florida State quarterback has completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,796 yards and 22 touchdowns, but he's just as dangerous as a runner. Travis has ran the ball 75 times this season for 367 yards and seven touchdowns, which ranks second on the team.
"He is a tremendous challenge," OU defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "He is a playmaker. He extends plays with his legs. Makes players miss in space, is an accurate passer and can extend plays, not only scrambling but also extend plays to throw the ball down the field. We have a lot of respect for him, and he is one of the best quarterbacks in the country."
With Redmond out, the Sooners have even fewer resources to stop him. The Sooners have struggled at defending both the run and the pass this season, but their best bet to limit his versatility is scheming to make him one dimensional.
3. Find success through the air
The Sooners may need Dillon Gabriel to have his best performance of the season as a passer.
That's going to be much easier said than done. The Seminoles are second in the nation in passing defense, surrendering just under 160 yards per game. They haven't been quite as efficient at defending the run, but the Sooners can't rely on a pair of freshman running backs to generate all of the offense.
The Sooners will need Gabriel to find some success through the air, while also limiting turnovers. He threw five of his six interceptions in the final four games of the regular season, and the Sooners likely won't be able to afford to cough up the ball against a good Florida State defense.
Look for Gabriel to find Marvin Mims, Brayden Willis and Drake Stoops in short-yardage throws to generate momentum.