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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. 4: Oklahoma

What could Oklahoma accomplished in 2010 if Sam Bradford had remained healthy?

This isn’t the N.F.L., where the window for success begins closing as soon as it opens. College football powers like Oklahoma recruit, reload, return to the national title hunt every season, beginning with Bud Wilkinson and extending through the Bob Stoops era. The day a prospect signs, you know he’ll only be around four, maybe five years. Thus, you plan accordingly. Stoops and his staff knew their time with Sam Bradford, Jermaine Gresham, Gerald McCoy and the rest of Oklahoma’s recently departed corps was short. Yet even with new pieces coming up through the ranks, I’m sure Stoops can’t avoid sitting back and wondering what could have been. What if Oklahoma had remained healthy in 2009?

Conference
Big 12, South

Location
Norman, Okla.

Nickname
Sooners

Returning starters
13 (8 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 4

2009 record
(8-5, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 31

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Utah St.
  • Sept. 11
    Florida St.
  • Sept. 18
    Air Force
  • Sept. 25
    at Cincinnati
  • Oct. 2
    Texas (in Dallas)
  • Oct. 16
    Iowa St.
  • Oct. 23
    at Missouri
  • Oct. 30
    Colorado
  • Nov. 6
    at Texas A&M
  • Nov. 13
    Texas Tech
  • Nov. 20
    at Baylor
  • Nov. 27
    at Oklahoma St.

Last year’s prediction

Now, I think it’s clear that I do believe Texas to be the better team in 2009. Not that Oklahoma won’t have something to prove, having lost in the national championship last fall, but I think Texas will have an enormous chip on its shoulder due to last season’s disappointment. So Oklahoma, in my mind, will come in second in the South; like with Texas last fall, that will result in Oklahoma being on the cusp of the national championship but settling – if you can call it settling – for a major B.C.S. bowl.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Injuries played a role, of course. Jermaine Gresham, the all-American tight end, was lost for the year before the season opener. Sam Bradford, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, was injured against B.Y.U., returned, was injured against playing Texas and never returned. The record was surely disappointing, with the Sooners dropping from B.C.S. title game participants to eight wins, seven during the regular season. As one would expect, the offense took a step back: from an N.C.A.A. record 716 points in 2008 to 404 last fall, 31.1 points per game. The best sight was the improvement of the O.U. defense, which knew it had to put forth a herculean effort to help offset the injuries on the other side of the ball. All told, Oklahoma allowed only 189 points — 14.5 points per game — the second-fewest of the Stoops era and the least since 2001. When you think about the improvement on defense, you wonder what these Sooners could have accomplished with a healthy offense.

High point A solid finish to the year. A 27-0 win over Oklahoma State in the Bedlam Game marked Oklahoma’s first shutout of the Cowboys since 1986. The Sooners followed that victory up with a Sun Bowl win over then-No. 21 Stanford.

Low point Bradford’s shoulder injury, hurt in the season opener and never fully healed, was the low point of the season. One year after putting together one of the most spectacular offensive attacks in the history of college football, Oklahoma’s offense was often toothless. The Sooners scored 13 points against B.Y.U., Texas Tech and Texas and only three in Lincoln against Nebraska. If Oklahoma had not had its spate of injuries, who knows how good this team could have been. With the improvement on defense, anything was possible.

Tidbit A few historical notes to pass along. With a win over Utah State on Sept. 4, Oklahoma will join a select group of F.B.S. programs with 800 career victories. Michigan, Texas, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Penn State are the only programs to have done so. Though Alabama trails by only one, Oklahoma’s 31 seasons with at least 10 wins is the most in the country. The Sooners have also scored 30,897 points, the most in the nation. In addition, only four coaches in Oklahoma’s history have finished with a career mark below .500: John Blake, 12-22 from 1996-98; Gomer Jones, 9-11-1 from 1964-65; Lewie Hardage, 11-12-4 from 1932-34; and John Harts, who went 0-1 in 1895, Oklahoma’s first season.

Tidbit (returning starters edition) That little box above, the one that lists Oklahoma’s returning starters, is a tad misleading. It’s difficult to accurately assess just how many starters Oklahoma returns, as the Sooners bring back 23 players who started at least one game in 2009. That includes seven players that made at least three starts on defense, though only five who made at least 10 starts. On the other hand, O.U. returns 14 players who made at least three starts on offense. Nine made at least six starts, five at least eight starts.

Former players in the N.F.L.

39 DE C.J. Ah You (St. Louis), DT Remi Ayodele (New Orleans), LB Mike Balogun (San Francisco), QB Sam Bradford (St. Louis), OT Jammal Brown (Washington), OG Chris Chester (Baltimore), WR Mark Clayton (Baltimore), LB Keenan Clayton (Philadelphia), C Jon Cooper (Minnesota), TE Brody Eldridge (Indianapolis), TE J.J. Finley (San Francisco), CB Dominique Franks (Atlanta), DT Kelly Gregg (Baltimore), TE Jermaine Gresham (Cincinnati), LB Nic Harris (Carolina), DT Tommie Harris (Chicago), K Garrett Hartley (New Orleans), S Lendy Holmes (Washington), WR Juaquin Iglesias (Chicago), LB Clint Ingram (New Orleans), CB Brian Jackson (New York Jets), WR Manuel Johnson (Dallas), WR Brandon Jones (Seattle), OG Davin Joseph (Tampa Bay), WR Malcolm Kelly (Washington), LB Teddy Lehman (Jacksonville), OT Phil Loadholt (Minnesota), LB Curtis Lofton (Atlanta), DT Gerald McCoy (Tampa Bay), S Donte Nicholson (Tampa Bay), RB Allen Patrick (Indianapolis), RB Adrian Peterson (Minnesota), S Brodney Pool (New York Jets), OG Duke Robinson (Carolina), OG Brian Simmons (New England), S Reggie Smith (San Francisco), DT Jimmy Wilkerson (New Orleans), OT Trent Williams (Washington), S Roy L. Williams (Cincinnati).

Arbitrary top five list

Movies set in Oklahoma
1. “True Grit,” 1969.
2. “Thelma & Louise,” 1991.
3. “The Outsiders,” 1983.
4. “Far and Away,” 1992.
5. “Twister,” 1996.

Coaching

Bob Stoops (Iowa ’83), 117-29 after 11 years with the Sooners. And what a stretch it’s been, despite last year’s injury-aided lull. 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 eight 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 six Big 12 titles (three straight), finished among the top 10 seven times and garnered an amazing 17 national awards, including two Heisman Trophy winners: Jason White in 2003, Sam Bradford in 2009. The six Big 12 titles is by far the most of any program, and the Sooners are the first Big 12 university to win back-to-back conference championships (2006-8), let alone three straight. Even more revealing, the Sooners have won its six conference titles with five 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. While the Wildcats went 6-16 over his first two seasons with the team, they went 40-17-1 over the five seasons following Stoops’s promotion to co-defensive coordinator. 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). It used to be there would be no other coach you would want coaching your team in a big game; while that might no longer be the case, are there many other coaches you’d want at the helm of your program?

Players to watch

How could Oklahoma possibly benefit from last season’s injuries? It’s simple, really. At quarterback, for instance, last year’s injuries yielded starting experience for sophomore Landry Jones, who now enters 2010 as a game-tested quarterback, not an unknown. He was the nation’s best freshman passer last fall, even if his statistical output paled in comparison to Sam Bradford’s Heisman-winning 2008 campaign. On the year, Jones threw for 3,198 yards in 10 starts, throwing 26 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. He completed 58.1 percent of his passes; again, numbers short of his predecessor, but a very good rookie season nonetheless. His numbers look far better if we take away a dreadful performance against Nebraska, when Jones completed 26 of 58 attempts for 245 yards and 5 interceptions. Look for a better season from Jones in 2010, though I hesitate to say he’s a Heisman contender, as some have suggested.

In my mind, Oklahoma’s Heisman contender is running back DeMarco Murray. He needs to remain healthy, of course, and show he’s capable of being a more consistent rusher: he took a step back in production last fall, rushing for only 705 yards on 4.1 yards per carry, but much of that decline can be attributed to Oklahoma’s overall decline on offense. Murray can double as a receiver, finishing second on the team in catches a year ago, and could also chip in as a returner, though it doesn’t seem he’ll be asked to do so in 2010. If the offensive line can open some holes and the passing game continue to roll, I think Murray will have a big year. Depth at running back is a slight concern, as O.U. will be without Mossis Madu for the season opener and incoming freshman Roy Finch for at least half of the season. Sophomores Jermie Calhoun and Jonathan Miller are the most likely answers when Murray needs a breather — or, very unfortunately, should he go down to injury.

The third piece in Oklahoma’s offensive puzzle is junior receiver Ryan Broyles. He’s coming off a big-time 2009 season, one where he led O.U. in receptions (89) and receiving yards (1,120) while setting a new single-season school record with 15 touchdown grabs. Talk about a rapport: Jones and Broyles hit it off immediately, with the receiver more than doubling his next-closest competitor in all three statistical categories. Like Murray — and Jones, to a degree — Broyles is in the mix for his position’s national award. With O.U. often going with three-receiver sets, the competition is on to join Broyles in the starting lineup. The Sooners return junior Dejuan Miller (36 catches for 434 yards) and senior Brandon Caleb (26 for 408), but both will be pushed for time by young receivers like Kenny Stills and Jaz Reynolds. Also in the mix is senior Cameron Kenney, who made 22 receptions in nine games a year ago.

A rebuilt, finally healthy offensive line will be key to Oklahoma’s hopes. For an idea of the role injuries played up front in 2009, take note of the fact that O.U. started four different centers, a program first. Two of those four return in 2010, with sophomore Ben Habern the answer if fully recovered from last season’s ankle injury. If not, O.U. can turn to senior Brian Lepak. The line also needs better play from its guards, Stephen Good and Tyler Evans. There’s reason to believe both will put last year’s experience to good use, with Good a potential all-Big 12 performer. The big story, in my mind, is at tackle. Is Donald Stephenson, coming off a redshirt season, ready to protect the blind side? If not, is Jarvis Jones ready to take on that task? Has Cory Brandon improved enough to return to the starting lineup at right tackle?

The O.U. linebacker corps, already reeling from the loss of two starters, took another blow when it learned Austin Box would likely miss September with back issues. When it comes to such an injury, it’s really hard to pinpoint when, or if, Box will return to action in 2010. This is unfortunate: Box was O.U.’s most experienced option at middle linebacker. The role will now fall to redshirt freshman Tom Wort, though Wort could surely have won the competition with Box outright. The youngster was due to play a role last fall as a true freshman, but he missed the year with an A.C.L. tear. Sophomore Ronnell Lewis takes over on the strong side, replacing Keenan Clayton. It will be tough for Lewis to replicate all the things Clayton did for this defense, especially in pass coverage, but he played pretty well (22 tackles, 2.5 for loss) when given the opportunity in 2009.

Of course, the star of the linebacker corps is junior Travis Lewis, one of the nation’s best. He lines up on the weak side, giving Lewis ample room and space with which to wreak havoc. And that’s what he does: wreak controlled havoc. Lewis is in the backfield, rushing the passer, covering running backs and tight ends in pass coverage, generally making things miserable for the opposition. He’s the one guy offenses must keep track of, which is high praise when considering the talent on this defense.

Jonathan Nelson’s strong play down the stretch in 2009, which included three interceptions in only a handful of starts, has pushed him to the top of the depth chart at strong safety. His ascension has moved junior Sam Proctor to free safety, where he’ll play behind senior Quinton Carter. The latter made 88 tackles a year ago, second-most on the team, and tied for the team lead with four interceptions. Even though Proctor has moved out of the starting lineup, his 10 games of starting experience make him a valuable asset at both safety spots.

I suppose there’s some reason to worry about O.U.’s cornerbacks, even if the Sooners always return wonderful talent at the position. Oklahoma’s still pretty untested here, with junior Jamell Fleming the only non-sophomore or freshman in the mix for a big role. Most of Fleming’s experience has come on special teams, with Oklahoma hoping that athleticism translates to a starting role in the secondary. Fleming’s not assured of a starting role, though it’s hard to imagine O.U. going with redshirt freshman Gabe Lynn in his place. Sophomore Demontre Hurst will take over on the other side after making 14 tackles and a sack in 2009. This isn’t the biggest pair of starting cornerbacks, though Fleming, at 5’11, certainly isn’t small. Based on his good size and ballyhooed recruitment, I’d think Lynn is the future at the position. Let’s see how he fares as a redshirt freshman.

Position battles to watch

Defensive line As at Nebraska, Oklahoma has an all-American defensive tackle to replace. Before getting to Gerald McCoy’s replacement, take note of Oklahoma’s senior end Jeremy Beal, who enters his final season ranked fifth on the school’s all-time sack list. Beal took full advantage of the attention afforded McCoy a year ago, leading the Sooners in tackles for loss (19) and sacks (11) and pacing all O.U. defensive linemen in tackles (69). Beal is clearly a next-level talent, but he’ll need to show he can continue to get to the quarterback without a dominating tackle in the middle. Junior Frank Alexander (24 tackles, 7 for loss) will man the opposite end. He’s started seven games in each of the last two seasons. Depth will come from a pair of sophomores, R.J. Washington and David King, with Washington a former five-star recruit set for his first period of significant action; and redshirt freshman Jarrett Brown. The big storyline involves the interior of the defensive line. Who replaces McCoy? O.U. can feel secure over the nose, where it returns senior Adrian Taylor and sophomore Casey Walker. Taylor started 13 games a year ago, but if his leg injury does not heal in time for Saturday, Walker will step into the starting lineup in his stead. All eyes will be on the supremely talented sophomore Jamarkus McFarland, who looks like McCoy’s long-term replacement. For now, another sophomore, Stacey McGee, stands atop the depth chart. It will be hard to keep McFarland off the field, however.

Game(s) to watch

Texas in early October, followed by Texas A&M a month later. The non-conference battle with Florida State looks like an intriguing matchup, but I don’t doubt Oklahoma’s ability to take it to the Seminoles. The Sooners will also want to earn a measure of revenge against Texas Tech, as the Red Raiders embarrassed O.U. by 28 points in 2009.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell To steal a line from Oklahoma’s media guide, there is a “silver lining” behind last season’s struggles. The injuries this team suffered decimated Oklahoma’s shot at a title run in 2009, but will undoubtedly be of an enormous benefit in 2010. Think about it: if Bradford remains healthy, the Sooners enter 2010 with a question at quarterback. Not the case anymore, as Jones is ready to go. The offensive line now returns 10 players with starting experience; that’s depth, and then some. As noted above, the defense returns 10 players with starting experience. If it can remain healthy and find solid production from its front four, there’s every reason to believe the defense can again rank among the top 20 nationally in scoring. So what’s not to like? Nothing, really. 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.

Dream season From dejection to perfection: 13-0. The Sooners earn another shot at a national championship.

Nightmare season There are no injuries to use as excuses this time, as Oklahoma remains healthy yet improves only to 9-3, 6-2 in the Big 12.

In case you were wondering

Where do Oklahoma fans congregate? Check out the message board chatter at Sooner FansSooner Scoop 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.

Up Next

Who is No. 3? You can attend tomorrow’s university on its main campus, or on a campus located in a city famous for being the burial location of a former President; or a campus in a city known for its production of the main battle tank for the U.S. Army; or a campus in a city known as the “Fun Center” of its home state.

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

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Comments

  1. Dr. Klahn says:

    Boise State is next

  2. Colin says:

    No, not Boise State. It doesn’t have any additional campuses (much less ones where there’s a former president buried). Texas is my guess.

  3. Sid Johnson says:

    It’s Ohio

    Lima-A1 Abrams
    Mansfield-Fun Center
    Marion-Warren G Harding

  4. Perrin says:

    Ohio State is next!

  5. Wes says:

    Only 3 are left (Texas isn’t one of them, they were #12).
    Ohio State, with campuses in Columbus (main campus), Marion (burial site of Warren G. Harding), Lima (producers of the M1 Abrams tank), and Mansfield (whatever a “fun center” is), is next.

  6. Matt Rob says:

    Are you going to put Boise at no. 1? They have less question marks than Alabama and an easier schedule.

  7. quigley says:

    OU’s FG kickers cost the Sooners ~ 2 games last year. They have done nothing to remedy this area.

  8. Great analysis, well done. Where will Boise State land, #1? How sweet would it be this year to get a rematch of Boise State and Oklahoma for the championship game? May end up that way, Alabama and Ohio State have a tough road to stay undefeated, don’t be surprised if they each stumble and this scenario plays out.

  9. [...] Five and Five: No. 4, Oklahoma By PAUL MYERBERG Paul Myerberg is getting you ready for the upcoming college football season over at Pre-Snap Read. The Quad will also feature a daily look at each of Paul’s top 50 teams in the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 4, is Oklahoma. You can find a larger Oklahoma preview here. [...]

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