Oklahoma Hurts Football

FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 5, 2019 file photo, Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley watches quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) during an NCAA college football practice in Norman, Okla. Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts is cramming as he prepares for his only year with the Sooners. Before transferring from Alabama, he played in three national title games. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File) ORG XMIT: NY302

Lincoln Riley made Ed Orgeron laugh.

It was a cordial enough start for two head coaches whose teams must go through the other to win their school's first semifinal in the College Football Playoff's six-year history.

The laugh was over a story about offensive success and scheme, which might as well be the central theme of the Peach Bowl semifinal between No. 1 LSU (13-0) and No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta at 3 p.m. Dec. 28.

LSU's Orgeron said he first met Riley at the NFL draft, and he immediately began asking Oklahoma's offensive guru about a specific play: the "counter-read," a run scheme that has helped the Sooners produce a top-15 rushing attack in each of the past two seasons.

"I'm going to have to remember what I told him about the counter play," Riley said Sunday on the Peach Bowl's joint coaches teleconference, "so that we don't do that on the 28th."

Orgeron cackled on the other line.

Riley can't give secrets away. He can't afford to anymore.

This is an LSU offense that was called a "Big 12 offense" when the Tigers beat Oklahoma's bitter rival Texas 45-38 in Week 2.

It took a few more months for people in Baton Rouge to realize that the comparison was actually a compliment.

Oh yes, the Southeastern Conference's first school to feature a 4,000-yard passer (Joe Burrow), a 1,000-yard rusher (Clyde Edwards-Helaire) and two 1,000-yard receivers (Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson) could snap an eight-game losing streak to Alabama, it could break through the league's adage that "defense wins championships" and win LSU's first conference title since 2011.

Orgeron's draft day questioning of Riley came at an important juncture: the Larose native knew LSU's offense had to change to be successful, and he was asking questions in the middle of his program's reconstruction.

Fast-forward, and LSU ranks higher than Oklahoma in scoring offense, averaging 47.8 points per game (No. 3 nationally) to Oklahoma's 43.2 (No. 5 nationally).

Now the Tigers offense will have to top the Big 12 Champions, the dizzying Sooners scheme that has led Oklahoma to its third-straight playoff berth under Riley.

Both schools are powered by transfer quarterbacks.

LSU has its Heisman front-runner, Joe Burrow, a graduate transfer from Ohio State. Oklahoma's on its third transfer in a row: Baker Mayfield (Texas Tech), Kyler Murray (Texas A&M) and, now, Jalen Hurts (Alabama).

Hurts has captured the nation's attention with his career arc, a quarterback who is 33-3 as a starter dating back to his two seasons at Alabama.

The 6-foot-2, 218-pound Texas native once led the Crimson Tide to the 2018 national championship game against Georgia. It was he who was famously benched for Tua Tagovailoa at halftime, who watched as his backup led Alabama to victory and never regained his starting job again.

Hurts had led Alabama to a 24-10 win over LSU that season, rushing and throwing for a touchdown against the Tigers in Orgeron's first full season as head coach.

"He's an outstanding player," Orgeron said of Hurts. "He actually beat us with his feet. He's made some big plays with his feet, and he threw the ball very well."

Now he's Oklahoma's leading rusher, a speedy scrambler whose 1,255 rushing ranks 20th nationally, a dynamic offensive weapon who's led the Sooners in two crucial victories over Baylor.

Hurts spurred a comeback win against Baylor in the regular season. Oklahoma was down 31-10 at halftime before the Sooners scored 24 unanswered points, with three Hurts touchdown passes, to win in the final minutes.

But Hurts was bottled in the Big 12 championship game, when Baylor held the senior to 38 yards on 23 carries (1.7 yards per carry). It was Oklahoma's defense that beat the Bears in overtime, hounding backup quarterback Jacob Zeno with a sack and three hurried incompletions that ended the game.

And that's what will be buried most in the build-up to the Peach Bowl: just as Orgeron knew he had to make changes offensively, Riley knew he had to make changes defensively.

Riley hired defensive coordinator Alex Grinch away from Ohio State, and the $1.4 million per year assistant coach flipped one of the nation's most atrocious defenses into one of the most efficient.

In one season, Oklahoma jumped from No. 101 in scoring defense (33.3 points allowed per game) to No. 49 (24.5), from No. 114 in total defense (453 yards allowed per game) to No. 24 (330.6).

And the Sooners did so against seven opponents within the nation's top 60 in scoring offense.

But LSU represents Grinch's toughest threat yet, another oddity in this SEC-Big 12 matchup.

It was Oklahoma who was bringing the nation's most high-powered offense in its past two semifinal appearances. First in a double-overtime loss to Georgia in 2017, and again in a 45-34 loss to Alabama in 2018.

Yes, since Orgeron's draft day conversation with Riley, the LSU Tigers have the offensive edge.

"They're really good," Riley said. "They do a great job. It's fortunate for us, we do through the years, get to see a bunch of really good offenses, but this one will be certainly as good as we've faced."

Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.