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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 3: Oklahoma

Great teams don’t stay down for long. Great teams look at 8-5 as being down, actually. Injuries sent Oklahoma tumbling from the national title game to only — only, with tongue in cheek — eight wins in 2009, as malady after malady claimed the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, among many others, in September. And there were several players thrust into major roles perhaps a year of ahead of schedule, if not more. The oft-repeated phrase was silver lining: the idea that short-term struggles will lead to future success. Oh, that was the case. The one-year, injury-caused hiatus from the top of the Big 12 in 2009 led O.U. back atop the conference in 2010, beating Nebraska, for one last time, to earn a Fiesta Bowl berth. If you’re keeping count, here’s the current tally of Big 12 titles: Oklahoma seven, the rest of the field eight.

Conference
Big 12

Location
Norman, Okla.

Nickname
Sooners

Returning starters
15 (8 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 4

2010 record
(12-2, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 9

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Tulsa
  • Sept. 17
    at F.S.U.
  • Sept. 24
    Missouri
  • Oct. 1
    Ball St.
  • Oct. 8
    Texas
  • Oct. 15
    at Kansas
  • Oct. 22
    Texas Tech
  • Oct. 29
    at Kansas St.
  • Nov. 5
    Texas A&M
  • Nov. 19
    at Baylor
  • Nov. 26
    Iowa St.
  • Dec. 3
    at Oklahoma St.

Last year’s prediction

The non-conference schedule is tough, but I’m confident that O.U. will dispatch Florida State and Cincinnati. In terms of Big 12 play, the Sooners are fortunate to play Missouri, not Nebraska, out of the North division. Now, the Sooners and Huskers will likely meet in the conference championship. The year comes down to dates with Texas and Texas A&M, with the Aggies a potential trap opponent for a team looking ahead to a perfect season. Speaking of perfection, can Oklahoma run the table? There is absolutely no question. So why here, not higher? Simply because I feel less certain about Oklahoma’s chances at a 13-0 regular season than I do of Alabama, Boise State or Ohio State’s chances at doing the same. This is not a slight against the Sooners.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Only the road could stop Oklahoma, which suffered both of its losses outside of Norman. Both came to very good teams: Missouri and Texas A&M. And both should not have happened, or at least might not have happened had O.U. faced the Tigers and Aggies at different times, not when they did. In the first, the Sooners ran into a hot, confident, defensively-potent team in Columbia; if the two teams met in November, when Missouri was scuffling, O.U. would have won with ease. And likewise with Texas A&M: if the two met 30 days earlier, when the Aggies were a beaten bunch, O.U. wouldn’t have had any trouble. This train of thought is ridiculous, I know. But what I’m trying to illustrate is the fine line between 12-2 and 14-0 — there’s a thin gap between the two, and when you play who you play often decides the difference between being the Big 12 champs and being the national champs. Not that O.U. was necessarily the best team in the nation: the offense was terrific after a one-year slide, but a young defense struggled at times getting stops. Both sides of the ball will work in tandem in 2011.

High point A bit under the radar, O.U. put together a pair of impressive wins in September: the first was a 47-17 win over Florida State, the second a 27-24 win over Air Force. But the Sooners didn’t really hit their stride until November. Over the year’s last five games, Oklahoma combined to outscore Texas Tech, Baylor, Oklahoma State, Nebraska and Connecticut by a score of 216-112.

Low point The losses to Missouri and Texas A&M, both on the road. The latter might have had O.U. looking at a third-place finish in the Big 12 South had it lost the season finale to Oklahoma State.

Tidbit How historically successful a program is Oklahoma? Hold onto your hats: Bob Stoops has an outrageous winning percentage of 80.6, which is what you get when you go 129-31 over a dozen years. And that’s the third-best winning percentage in program history — that’s ridiculous. The best of the bunch is Barry Switzer, who went 157-29-4, a winning percentage of 83.7, from 1973-88. And that’s better than even the legendary Bud Wilkinson, who built O.U. into a national power in the years after World War II. Wilkinson held a career mark of 145-29-5, a winning percentage of 82.6, after leading the Sooners from 1947-63.

Tidbit (offense and defense edition) More historical footnotes. I mentioned last summer that Oklahoma was the highest-scoring team in F.B.S. history, and last fall did nothing to change that: the Sooners have scored 31,437 points, an average of 26.9 points per game, to pace all comers. The defense is also near the top: 14,776 points allowed, or an average of 12.7 per game. The per game average is the sixth-best mark in the nation.

Former players in the N.F.L.

38 DE C.J. Ah You (St. Louis), DT Remi Ayodele (Minnesota), LB Mike Balogun (Dallas), DE Jeremy Beal (Denver), QB Sam Bradford (St. Louis), OT Cory Brandon (Tampa Bay0, OT Branndon Braxton (Cleveland), OT Jammal Brown (Washington), S Quinton Carter (Denver), C Chris Chester (Washington), FB Matt Clapp (Detroit), LB Keenan Clayton (Philadelphia), C Jon Cooper (Minnesota), TE Brody Eldridge (Indianapolis), LB Auston English (Cleveland), TE J.J. Finley (Detroit), CB Dominique Franks (Atlanta), DT Kelly Gregg (Kansas City), TE Jermaine Gresham (Cincinnati), DT Tommie Harris (Indianapolis), K Garrett Hartley (New Orleans), WR Juaquin Iglesias (Minnesota), LB Clint Ingram (New Orleans), CB Brian Jackson (New York Giants), WR Manuel Johnson (Dallas), WR Brandon Jones (Baltimore), OG Davin Joseph (Tampa Bay), OT Phil Loadholt (Minnesota), LB Curtis Lofton (Atlanta), RB Mossis Madu (Tampa Bay), DT Gerald McCoy (Tampa Bay), RB DeMarco Murray (Dallas), S Jonathan Nelson (St. Louis), RB Adrian Peterson (Minnesota), S Brodney Pool (New York Jets), S Reggie Smith (San Francisco 49ers), DE Jimmy Wilkerson (Seattle), OT Trent Williams (Washington).

Arbitrary top five list

Baseball players born in Oklahoma
1. Mickey Mantle.
2. Johnny Bench.
3. Willie Stargell.
4. Paul Waner.
5. Joe Carter.

Coaching

Bob Stoops (Iowa ’83), 129-31 after 12 years with the Sooners. And what a stretch it’s been. Stoops is a two-time national coach of the year, winning the award in 2000 and 2003. After a 7-5 debut season in 1999, Stoops has led the Sooners to nine seasons with at least 11 wins, including a perfect 13-0 mark and a national title in 2000. In the nine years prior to his arrival, Oklahoma, racked by probation and poor coaching decisions, went 54-46-3, without a conference title, top 10 finish or national award winner. Since Stoops took over, the Sooners have won seven Big 12 titles — three in the last four years — finished among the top 10 eight times and garnered an amazing 17 national awards, including two Heisman Trophy winners: Jason White in 2003, Sam Bradford in 2008. The seven Big 12 titles is by far the most of any program, and O.U. is the first Big 12 program to win back-to-back conference championships (2006-8), let alone three straight. Even more revealing, the Sooners have won its seven conference titles with six different quarterbacks, illustrating how well Stoops has recruited and developed players while in Norman. Oklahoma is Stoops’s first head coaching job – nice opening hire by Oklahoma’s athletic director, Joe Castiglione – after serving for 16 years as an F.B.S. assistant. Directly before coming to Norman, Stoops spent three highly successful seasons as Steve Spurrier’s defensive coordinator at Florida, where he helped the Gators to the national championship in 1996 and a three-year mark of 32-5. Stoops earned his stripes as a major factor behind the Miracle in Manhattan, serving as a key member of Bill Snyder’s defensive staff at Kansas State from 1989-1995. His coaching start came at his alma mater, where he went from being an all-Big Ten defensive back to a graduate assistant under Hayden Fry (1983-1987). What other coach would you’d want at the helm of your program?

Players to watch

I’m just so, so tired of Oklahoma’s continued excellence under center. It’s just so, so tiring. I mean, you go back to 2000 and see the following list of starters: Josh Heupel, Jason White, Rhett Bomar, Paul Thompson, Sam Bradford and Landry Jones. And you see offensive coordinators come and go, one future head coach replacing another, yet the train goes on and on and on. It’s just getting ridiculous, really. What’s in the water down in Norman?

Jones very much fits into the program’s recent run of high-profile, much-lauded, award-worthy starters at the position. He’s a Heisman contender in 2011, though you knew that already. He’s more than that, in my opinion. Jones is a success story: thrown to the wolves in 2009 after Bradford suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, Jones took his lumps — in a major way — as a redshirt freshman starter before turning the corner last fall. And in 2011, you’ll see the total package. Big, strong, accurate, well-versed in this system and completely comfortable in all that Oklahoma will ask him to do, Jones is yet another perfect for this O.U. offense.

And after throwing for 4,718 yards and 38 scores last fall, Jones is a clear candidate to lead the nation in both categories in 2011. I mean, he did he finish second in passing and touchdowns last fall, so it’s not too much of a stretch. Starting quarterback on one of the top three teams in the country? If the Heisman doesn’t go to Andrew Luck, it may very well go to Jones. Quick aside: in June, Jones became engaged to Oklahoma basketball player Whitney Hand. They’re a cute couple. Don’t tell Brent Musberger.

Oklahoma likes its quarterback-receiver combinations prolific. If any pairing does it better than Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon it’s the Sooners’ Jones and Ryan Broyles, who joins his Stillwater counterpart as one of the most productive pass-catchers in the country. Actually, Broyles did it better than Blackmon in 2010: 131 receptions for 1,622 yards and 14 scores, notching at least eight grabs in every game but two and at least 100 yards in every game but three. I’m fairly confident that Jones and Broyles could play catch on wet grass in the middle of the night and still find each other on the same page.

And Broyles is far from the only weapon on the receiver corps. One of the most pleasing developments last fall was the emergence of two sophomores, Trey Franks (29 catches for 263 yards) and Kenny Stills (71 for 594), the latter of whom broke Broyles’ own freshman receiving record. That pair will join the all-American in the starting lineup, with a healthy Dejuan Miller — he missed the second half of 2010 — more than capable of playing key snaps as a reserve. Rounding out the top tier at receiver are sophomore Jaz Reynolds and, for now, true freshman Kameel Jackson. O.U. also has a pair of strong tight ends in seniors James Hanna (18 for 292 and 7 scores) and Trent Ratterree (10 for 198), and sophomore Austin Haywood may also squeeze in some snaps.

Oklahoma is pinpointing the date with Texas as Jarvis Jones’ return date from a springtime injury, which will really help matters up front. When he does step back onto the field, O.U. can taste the fruit of two years of labor: extremely young in 2009, slightly more experienced in 2010, this line will finally be worthy of sharing the spotlight with the dozen or so high-profile athletes at the offensive skill positions. When Jones does return, Oklahoma can tout a starting five with strong starting experience — as well as a few reserves with solid time passed in the trenches.

This is a group led by junior center Ben Habern, a two-year starter with all-conference credentials. Flanking Habern are sophomore Gabe Ikard and junior Tyler Evans — left and right guard, respectively — with both looked improved after an already solid 2010 season. Stephen Good may fall short of reaching his early expectations as a five-star recruit, but he’s a very strong reserve at both guard spots. It’ll be senior Donald Stephenson on the blind side, where he split time with Jones last fall, and for now, redshirt freshman Daryl Williams at right tackle. I imagine that Jones will take over for Williams once he returns in October.

The O.U. defense took its lumps in 2010, but that’s what you get when you play so many freshmen and sophomores, as the Sooners did a year ago. As elsewhere — at Florida State, in fact — there’s every reason to believe that a younger group that scuffled at times will turn the corner in 2011. Reason one, and it’s the most important one: I can count the number of times Oklahoma has allowed more than 21.9 points per game under Stoops’ direction on two fingers — 2008 and 2010. In 2009, despite struggling offensively, Oklahoma allowed 14.5 points per game. I don’t think the defense will be that good, but O.U. will take a nice step forward defensively this fall.

Not to say there aren’t a few concerns. One is the injury suffered by all-everything weak side linebacker Travis Lewis, who is projected to miss at least September with a broken foot. It’s hard to quantify just how important a defensive player can be to a team’s success; it’s easier to do so with quarterbacks, for instance, at least statistically. But Lewis is right alongside Jones as Oklahoma’s most vital pieces, and his four or five weeks off the field will really test this defense. He’ll be replaced in the starting lineup by Corey Nelson, a gifted sophomore who will take over for good in 2012.

For now, Nelson is the weak link at linebacker. And that says something about what O.U. has at the position, not to diminish how much the Sooners will miss Lewis. Sophomore Tom Wort (66 tackles, 4.5 sacks) is back in the middle after making nine starts last fall; O.U. will sorely miss his running mate inside, Austin Box, who passed away earlier in the summer — the Sooners will honor their former teammate throughout the coming season and beyond. Another sophomore, Tony Jefferson (65 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 interceptions), the reigning Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, returns on the strong side. Youth reigns, at least until Lewis is back in action. If it can survive until he does, O.U. will reap the benefits of having Nelson spend time in the starting lineup. Depth is a bit of a worry, especially with a reserve already pushed into a beefed-up role. The Sooners can’t afford to lose Nelson to injury.

A second concern is the defensive line, especially inside. Now, as an aside: these aren’t the sort of concerns I’ve mentioned elsewhere, but rather the sort of nitpicking concerns you find only at prime national title contenders. For O.U., a lack of a proven pass rusher outside and a proven block-demanding presence inside could mean a bit of trouble against teams that plan to spread things out and go to work in the passing game. That could change if one of several gifted contributors step up to the plate. Perhaps senior end Frank Alexander (39 tackles, 7 sacks) takes another step forward after a strong 2010 campaign; he wouldn’t be the first O.U. end to step up in his final season.

Ronnell Lewis will join Alexander in the starting lineup eventually, but he may miss the season opener while dealing with a personal issue. That’s your starting pairing, but Oklahoma needs depth. What O.U. really needs is junior R.J. Washington to play like he’s supposed to: talent isn’t an issue, but he’s pulled a disappearing act since arriving on campus. For now, junior David King and redshirt freshmen Chuka Ndulue and Geneo Grissom are the backups. As for the interior, big things are expected of junior Jamarkus McFarland 23 tackles, 1.5 sacks) as he battles fellow junior Stacy McGee for the starting role. The winner of that battle — and both will play a ton — will join junior Casey Walker as the two main men in the middle. Maybe McFarland is the Gerald McCoy-like presence at tackle. Oklahoma needs that sort of player to hit on all cylinders defensively.

Very strong at cornerback, some holes to fill at safety. O.U. should feel very comfortable at the former, where both junior Demontre Hurst (50 tackles, 1 interception) and senior Jarnell Fleming (71 tackles, team-best 5 interceptions) are back in the fold. The Sooners also like sophomore Gabe Lynn, junior Lamar Harris and redshirt freshman Julian Wilson — especially Lynn and Wilson, who look like the future at the position.

There’s enough depth at cornerback to allow O.U. to move sophomore Aaron Colvin to strong safety, where he’ll open the year in the starting lineup. Behind him are a pair of unknown — even more unknown — quantities in redshirt freshman Quentin Hayes and junior Jesse Paulsen. The Sooners are looking good at free safety with junior Javon Harris (28 tackles) and senior Sam Proctor. Harris played well down the stretch last fall, especially against Oklahoma State, while Proctor has been in Norman for a decade, it seems.

Position battle(s) to watch

Running back Junior Dominique Whaley shares top billing on the depth chart, but that can’t be right, can it? Whaley’s a nice story: a former walk-on, he’s fought off a line of major recruits to put himself in line for significant action for the Sooners in 2011. But I can’t see his co-starting status lasting for long, not when O.U., once again, has a glut of options at the position. One is sophomore Roy Finch, the team’s top returning rusher — he rushed for 398 yards last fall, second-most on the team. That total, of course, trailed only Demarco Murray, one of the nation’s best dual-threat backs. Replacing his production on the ground won’t be that hard; finding a back who can be such a weapon in the passing game will, however. For now, the top three are Whaley, Finch and sophomore Brennan Clay (127 yards), with the latter pair the team’s most talented alternatives — maybe. What O.U. doesn’t lack is talent, not by a long shot: beyond Finch and Clay, the Sooners tout junior Jermie Calhoun, who played well in 2009 but was limited by injuries last fall; sophomore Jonathan Miller, who also showed flashes in 2009 before taking a redshirt a year ago; and true freshman Brandon Williams, who may or may not redshirt, depending on what sort of mood Stoops is in when speaking with the media. If there was a year where O.U. could afford to redshirt a top recruit, this is it — every year is it, actually. But if Williams gets the big things down, like pass protection, he could definitely play as a rookie. And if he does, he both gives the Sooners another option in the backfield while increasing the crunch for carries.

Games to watch

Any game after Florida State won’t have title implications if the Sooners can’t unseat the Seminoles in Tallahassee. O.U. won by 30 points a year ago, but this is a different F.S.U. team. Even with a loss, games against Missouri, Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State remain vital. Could this be the last time O.U. takes on the Longhorns as a conference foe? I think we can say that about Texas A&M, who may not be in the SEC but definitely won’t be in the Big 12 in 2012.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I’m nearly all in with Oklahoma, but I look at the depth chart and see one significant concern: five senior starters, eight seniors in the two-deep altogether. That’s a little worrisome, even if we all agree that this team isn’t really inexperienced, just young. The experience came last fall for most, over the last two years for some, and despite the class — sophomore, junior, senior — listed on the depth chart the most important thing is always snaps. This team took snaps in 2009, losing five games and learning to hate the taste of defeat. This same team took even more significant snaps fall, taking part in several key games and, more often than not, coming out on top. You can’t discount that experience… yet I’m a bit concerned about the lack of senior leadership on the roster. Alabama has it, Boise State has it in spades, but O.U. doesn’t. And when you get to this point, trying to find two finalists among three chief national title contenders — this is my opinion, at least — that’s one thing that separates the Sooners from the Crimson Tide and Broncos. But I’m splitting hairs here, since O.U. is clearly built for a national title. Jones is a Heisman contender under center. Broyles is one of the nation’s best players regardless of position. The offensive line has hit its stride. There are some concerns defensively, but those can be addressed should the O.U. line play up to its potential. It’s obvious that the Sooners can play for and win the national championship. I just think that there’s enough youth at key spots to project one loss in the regular season. Even if that does occur, the Sooners will take home the Big 12 for another time — number eight — and reach yet another B.C.S. bowl.

Dream season Perfection. Stoops takes home his second national championship.

Nightmare season In a eerily familiar scene to 2009, the Sooners are derailed early by injuries. The results are little better — 10-2 in the regular season, not 7-5 — but the Sooners are capable of more.

In case you were wondering

Where do Oklahoma fans congregate? Check out the message board chatter at Sooner FansSooner ScoopLand Thieves and Sooners Illustrated. Additional coverage can found at the Web sites of The Oklahoman and The Norman Transcript. For a blog’s take, visit Blatant Homerism and Crimson and Cream Machine.

Word Count

Through 118 teams 377,924.

Up Next

Who is No. 2? Tomorrow’s team contains the letter B in its name, is located in one of the five most-populous cities in its home state, won at least 10 games in 2010, has played in a B.C.S. bowl in at least one of the last two years, has won more than 55 percent of its career bowl games, is led by a coach with at least two B.C.S. bowl wins, has had a Heisman finalist in at least one of the last two years and is receiving at least two first-place votes in the preseason A.P. Poll.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Eksynyt says:

    I’ve got a hunch that it’s either Boise State or Alabama.

  2. michael says:

    good on ya mate, I hope you go though with it and put them #1

  3. gtwrek says:

    Today’s the day each year I turn off the internet and turn on the TV. Because kickoff is TODAY! So I want to say thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you Paul for this blog. It’s the best thing out there in the summer by miles.

  4. SixWinSeason says:

    I’m guessing ‘Bama

  5. DMK says:

    When was the last time a pre-season #2 (or #1!) lost its opener?

  6. Nick Coston says:

    Toni Braxton University, located in downtown Butte, Montana, has seen its football program explode onto the national scene in the dawn of the 21st century. Winners of the last seven Soul Power Athletic Conference presented by Kellogg’s Sugar Enemas (SPACKLE) titles, TBU’s most memorable game occurred January 1, 2007, in the Bugles Disco Bowl. Facing not only the juggernaut University of Douglas but also an entire nation of disbelievers, Toni Braxton rode a series of fourth-quarter trick plays to victory, capturing not only the Travolta Cup but the hearts and minds of skeptics everywhere. Since that unforgettable night in Dodger Stadium, longtime head coach Sisqo has fought off BCS job offer after BCS job offer like Robert Plant denying waves of jailbait. TBU’s dominance of the SPACKLE in recent years has opened the eyes of many a journalist to the program’s ability to compete on a national level; as such, TBU received 7,479 first place votes in the 2011 preseason AP poll.

    Toni Braxton University is next. Go Darkchilds!

  7. NUwildcat09 says:

    Hmmm, is Paul trying to say something with all of these similarities between ‘Bama and Boise State?

  8. schedule nit says:

    If it’s Bama, I hope you can tell us your predictions for who the quarterback will be and whether or not that 320 lb JUCO transfer noseguard will really be playing defensive end this year.

  9. Burnt Orange says:

    @ DMK, in the 70′s both Texas and Bama lost openers when ranked one and two. Texas to Miami in about 73 and Bama to Mizzou a few years later. There may be others but I remember the old stuff better than the recent games.

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