Oklahoma won the 2012 Big 12 championship – or at least a piece of it – and finished 10-3, but got its doors ripped off by that Manziel guy in the 2013 Cotton Bowl, meaning the program had lost its mojo.
Oklahoma kept Oklahoma State from winning the 2013 Big 12 championship – or at least a piece of it – and finished 11-2 after ripping through Alabama like that Manziel guy did two years in a row, and all of a sudden the program is hot stuff.
It’s amazing what one great bowl game and one fantastic late drive against an archrival can do.
Oklahoma is still Oklahoma – very talented, always in the Big 12 title chase, always good enough to be in line for the biggest of big bowl games – but funny things tend to happen to the sports media world when you beat Alabama like the Sooners did in the 2014 Sugar Bowl.
Remember, Oklahoma got beaten up and blown through last season by a totally mediocre Texas team and was obliterated by Baylor. If Blake Bell didn’t step in and save the day against Oklahoma State, no matter what might have happened in the Cotton Bowl – or whatever bowl a 9-3 OU would’ve gone to – the narrative would’ve been far, far different going into this season.
But Trevor Knight turned into Joe Montana for a day in New Orleans, the defensive front became the ’85 Bears, and all of a sudden we’re supposed to believe that the magic is back? Bob Stoops is Big Game Bob again? The team isn’t going to pull an Oklahoma at least once or twice a regular season and get crushed in stunning fashion – be it a blowout against 2012 Notre Dame, a 41-13 loss to Texas Tech in 2009 or a 41-38 loss to a bad Texas Tech team in 2011?
Really, we’re now supposed to buy that a team with so many questions in the defensive backfield, running back, and yeah, quarterback is ready to rock through a not-that-bad Big 12 and roll through the College Football Playoff?
There’s a theory when it comes to the NCAA basketball tournament that all you can reasonably do is put a good team on the floor year in and year out and then hope everything comes together once in a while during a few weeks in March – eventually, you’ll catch the right breaks. That’s been Oklahoma under Stoops, fielding great team after great team as the true star of the Big 12, and while there hasn’t been a national title since 2000, it’s not like there’s been a major lull.
Sure, there have been some missteps here and there, and there have been times when the Sooners haven’t quite played up to expectations, but Stoops is averaging ten wins a year in Norman and has proven to become a legend at a place that names things after football people. And yeah, while bowl games might be self-contained, one-off exhibitions, blasting away like OU did on Nick Saban’s fun bunch really was important and really was impressive. It did matter, because it seemed to remind everyone that Oklahoma football has been and still is pretty good.
Is the 2014 version a complete team? Hardly, especially compared to what Florida State is about to crank out, but there are always good OU running backs waiting to put up huge numbers, there are always more receivers to fill in the gaps, the secondary always finds all-star talent, and the program always reloads like all elite ones do. But now it’ll be important to take the attitude it showed in the Sugar Bowl – the yeah, SEC, we can play football, too, mentality – and bring it each and every week. There isn’t a team on the schedule that should be favored over the Sooners, and with Tennessee, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State coming to Norman, there’s absolutely no excuse to not get into the playoff.
The end of the 2013 season set the bar high again for many, even though it never dropped. This time around, though, 11-2 probably won’t be good enough.
What to watch for on offense: It could be shaky for a little while, but that’s relative. No one’s ever going to cry for Oklahoma when it loses key players, but it might take a bit before all the skill guys get into a groove. It’ll look fine for Louisiana Tech and Tulsa, but it needs to be humming for Tennessee and the start of the Big 12 season. There’s no problem with the No. 1 target, Sterling Shepard, but who’s No. 2? Three of the top four targets are gone, and including the running backs who got involved with the passing game, seven of the top nine pass catchers from last season have to be replaced. Top running back Brennan Clay is gone, and so are Damien Williams and Roy Finch meaning former star recruit Keith Ford has to be ready to rock. And if something happens to Trevor Knight, or if he’s not fantastic, look out.
What to watch for on defense: Get your backup quarterback ready, because the Sooner front seven is going to hit the starter early and often. The defense that cranked up 33 sacks last year and spent the Sugar Bowl sitting on AJ McCarron’s head comes back loaded, especially up front. If this isn’t the best defensive line in the country, it’s a close second with Charles Tapper and Geneo Grissom on the ends, and with the return of DT Jordan Phillips from a back problem to make things happen in the middle. Throw in pass rushing terror Eric Striker from wherever he’s going to play in the back seven, and a loaded linebacking corps, and it’s not crazy to call this one of the best defensive fronts in the Stoops era.
The team will be far better if … the punt coverage team is stronger. The Sooners need to cut down on penalties, the passing game has to be more consistent, and the offense has to be better overall despite the loss of several key skill players, but the special teams have to do everything right, too. Punter Jed Barnett is fine, but the coverage team was a disaster at times. It was fantastic over the back half of the season, allowing just four returns for 27 yards, but Texas game was a disaster and Tulsa returned one punt for 77 yards. The difference between being very good and possibly winning a Big 12 title and going to the College Football Playoff could be a few big plays, and OU can’t allow 15.6 yards per return again.
The schedule: It’s an interesting non-conference slate if Louisiana Tech and Tulsa are better. If both are back to their 2012 form, they’ll be more than just speed bumps before OU hosts a rejuvenated Tennessee in the first meeting since the 1968 Orange Bowl – a 26-24 Sooner win.
Facing the Vols is a tough enough test, and then OU is away from Gaylord Family for most of the next six weeks, starting the Big 12 slate at West Virginia, at TCU and against Texas in Dallas. The off-weeks are well-timed with an open date before going to TCU and before the final month. Going to Iowa State and Texas Tech isn’t that bad and getting Baylor and Oklahoma State at home should help late in the year. Three of the last four games are at home, making up for the one home date between September 13th and early November 8th.
Best offensive player: Senior OT Daryl Williams. The hope is for Trevor Knight to be the star of the offense, and it’s possible WR Sterling Shepard could turn into the most dynamic weapon, but the best player should be Williams, an NFL-caliber tackle with the size and toughness to start on Sundays. While he would’ve been a mid-round pick had he come out early, he can play his way into a top 50 selection with a big year. While he might get the Right Tackle Only tag at the next level, or be moved to guard, he’ll be the anchor on this year’s OU line.
Best defensive player: Junior DE Charles Tapper. There could be any one of a number of prospects for the honor of being the best defensive player. Eric Striker might be the most dynamic defender, and Jordan Phillips and Chuka Ndulue are going to be rocks on the inside, but Tapper should be the main man up front. It’s a wee bit of a projection, assuming he’s about to take his game to another level, but he’s a great all-around player, and not just a pass rusher. He has the size, strength and quickness off the ball to do even more to get into the backfield. More than just a stat guy, he’s always making defenses worry.
Key player to a successful season: Sophomore QB Trevor Knight. The coaching staff shocked everyone when Knight was named the starter at the beginning of last year, and stunned everyone again when Blake Bell was moved aside after saving the day against Oklahoma State for Knight in the Sugar Bowl. Now it’s sink-or-swim side with transfers and position changes – Bell is at tight end now – making this Knight’s season. The problem is that he wasn’t consistent, but all anyone remembers is the brilliant Sugar Bowl performance. Can he come close to playing at that level game in and game out? He had better, and he has to stay healthy with nothing but inexperience waiting in the wings.
The season will be a success if … Oklahoma gets into the College Football Playoff. Winning the Big 12 is a nice goal, and it might be necessary to get into the final four, and going unbeaten would be great, but it’s not necessary. If there aren’t a slew of problems on offense with so much turnover, and if the secondary isn’t an issue, there’s no reason to not go 11-1 – at least – and be a part of the post-season fun.
Key game: Nov. 8 vs. Baylor. The Sooners have to be ready for a jacked up Texas, and the regular season finale against Oklahoma State will probably determine the Big 12 championship, but the most important battle might be against a team the Sooners owned for a long, long time. Baylor whacked OU 41-12 last season for the second win in three years, but with the Iowa State game before and with Texas Tech and Kansas after, November might not be all that bad if OU can get back the winning edge in the series.
2013 Fun Stats:
- Fourth Quarter Scoring: Oklahoma 126 – Opponents 61
- Time of Possession: Oklahoma 31:18 – Opponents 27:42
- Fourth Down Conversions: Oklahoma 11-of-16 (69%) – Opponents 5-of-14 (36%)