Best of 2019-20: South Dakota a rarity in Oklahoma football's scheduling philosophy

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley coaches during the spring game on April 12 at Owen Field. Riley's team has two games against FCS opponents the next two seasons. But that's at odds with the Sooners' scheduling philosophy.

Editor’s note: This is the first look at all 13 Oklahoma football games for the 2019-20 season. Ranked from 1st (highest) to 12th (lowest), factors include difficulty, venue, entertainment value and anticipated margin.

NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma has scheduled without fear. It recently announced series against Clemson (2035-36) Alabama (2032-33) and will face Michigan and Nebraska by the year 2030.

The Sooners also have LSU lined up, but with dates to be determined.

The tactic helped earn OU earn three College Football Playoff berths in the past four years. Tough opponents can equal tough wins, which act as launchpads into the postseason or security blankets in the event of a midseason setback.

But South Dakota is one of the few exceptions.

The Coyotes visit Norman in the first week of September as one of two Football Championship Division teams OU has scheduled over the next two seasons.

Playing lower-division teams isn’t ideal, and OU has historically avoided them. The cost is expensive and the result predictable, which is why The Transcript ranks South Dakota as OU’s No. 12th-ranked game of 2019-20.

Lincoln Riley’s take on the matter was clear last month: The goal is to schedule fewer of these, not more.

“Some of these leagues have taken hits for scheduling soft on the outside of the conference. And they should be,” Riley said. “You should have to go play some good opponents in non-conference and not get away with playing a couple of I-AAs or somebody else that isn’t very good.”

• When: Week 2 | Saturday, Sept. 7 (6 p.m: TV, TBA) | Norman, OK

• Why it’s No. 12: It’s the second week of the season. Only steamy stadium temperatures — though a 6 o’clock evening start helps — will be higher than the final margin.

South Dakota put a scare into Kansas State last year, leading 24-12 at halftime and before the Wildcats rallied for a 27-24 victory. But the Coyotes will struggle to replicate that against OU.

Perhaps only the Sooners’ game at Kansas could rank lower. But with the setting at Mount Oread and Les Miles facing OU again, even the game in Lawrence packs more punch.

• Last time: This is the teams’ first meeting. South Dakota has queued up several meetings against Big 12 schools, including Iowa State (2020) and Kansas (2021) in addition to OU (2019) and Kansas State (2018).

A look at the Coyotes

• The skinny: Coach Bob Nielson turned the tide at Minnesota Duluth, going 11-1 with a conference title and Division II NCAA playoff berth in 2002 with a group that had gone 3-8 three years earlier.

He’s been up-and-down with the Coyotes. They’ve gone 4-7 (2016), 8-5 (2017) and 4-7 (2018) during his three seasons.

By Oct. 13 of last year, South Dakota was 3-2 with a win over then-No. 24 Missouri State and the near upset at Kansas State. But a four-game losing streak — including a wild 51-48 loss in three overtimes at Indiana State — smattered the overall record.

Quarterback Austin Simmons and receiver Dakari Allen (48 catches, 703 yards, 5 TDs ) are one of the Valley’s best pass-catch combinations and among the team’s top returners; overall eight offensive and seven defensive starters come back.

The Coyotes have had one winning record since 2009 and would love get above .500 for a change — if for no other reason than to fend off South Dakota State, which has rallied to take a lead in the teams’ 113-year-old rivalry series. (If not for two World Wars and SDSU making the jump to the FCS from 2004-11, it would be older than Bedlam.)

South Dakota led the series 48-34-7 in the late 1980s. But SDSU has won 21 of 24 games since 1990 to take a 55-51-7 lead.

• Best returning player: Simmons led the Missouri Valley Conference and was fourth nationally with 3,124 yards passing during the regular season. That’s South Dakota’s second-highest total in program history.

Take away Simmons’ sacks, and he was the Coyotes’ third best rusher with 549 total yards (6.5 yards per carry).

• Biggest departure: Linebacker Alex Gray led the team in tackles (82), was second in career starts (32) and first in consecutive starts (32).

He was instrumental in the big halftime lead at K-State. Gray had seven tackles, a fumble recovery and a 25-yard interception return for a TD in the first half alone.