No. 9: Oklahoma
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 27, 2012
Before Ryan Broyles was lost for the season, the Sooners’ lone loss came as a result of the worst 30 minutes Oklahoma had played since John Blake. After Broyles tore up his knee in the second half against Texas A&M, the Sooners lost to Baylor for the first time in program history and to Oklahoma State for the first time since 2002. Through nine games, Oklahoma was averaging 8.3 yards per pass attempt; extrapolated over the entire season, that total would have tied O.U. with five other teams for 13th-best in the country. Over their last four games, the Sooners averaged 6.6 yards per attempt; extrapolated over the entire season, that total would have tied O.U. with seven other teams — including Duke and Minnesota — for 85th in the country. The final month defined Oklahoma’s season; in a nutshell, the Sooners could only weather so many storms before the offense fell apart. As the offense went, so went Oklahoma. At least O.U. won’t have to worry about losing Broyles in 2012; he’s now healthy, making plays for the Detroit Lions.
15 (8 offense, 7 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 22
- Oct. 6
at Texas Tech
- Oct. 13
vs. Texas (in Dallas)
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
at Iowa St.
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
at West Virginia
- Nov. 24
- Dec. 1
Last year’s prediction
You can’t discount that experience… yet I’m a bit concerned about the lack of senior leadership on the roster. 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. 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.
In a nutshell With a healthy Broyles, Oklahoma has a shot at playing for the national title. Not a great chance, mind you, but an 11-1 regular season in Norman might have been enough to life the Sooners past Alabama in the B.C.S. rankings — 11-1 in Stillwater, on the other hand, wasn’t enough for the Cowboys. Instead, O.U. ended its season in the Insight Bowl against Iowa, another team that greatly underachieved over the second half of the season. Everything went according to plan through mid-October. Then everything fell apart. Blame injuries for the issues on offense, but scattered among several vintage performance from the Sooners’ defense were a few duds — Baylor and Texas Tech, for example.
High point A 55-17 win over Texas on Oct. 8. The scoring total was Oklahoma’s third-most in the history of the rivalry. The margin of victory was its third-most under Bob Stoops against the Longhorns, trailing a 63-14 slaughter in 2000 and a 65-13 shellacking in 2003. Last fall’s laugher reminded many of the days when Mack Brown couldn’t sniff Stoops and the Sooners.
Low point The Red Raiders’ win in Norman snapped Oklahoma’s 39-game home winning streak — and snapped it with style, to be honest. A pregame weather delay didn’t slow down Texas Tech, which opened up a 31-7 lead early in the third quarter and held on for a 41-38 win. Baylor won, 45-38, on a late touchdown pass. Oklahoma State won with ease.
Tidbit Oklahoma is 77-3 at home since Bob Stoops’ arrival in 1999 – winning home games at a 96.2 percent clip, which is fine, I guess. The three losses: Oklahoma State in 2001, T.C.U. in 2005 and Texas Tech last fall. The loss to the Red Raiders snapped Oklahoma’s 39-game home winning streak, which was the fifth-longest in the F.B.S. since 1946. Longer? Miami won 58 straight home games from 1985-94, Alabama won 57 straight from 1963-82, Nebraska took 47 in a row from 1991-98 and Texas took 42 in a row from 1968-76. What’s one thing the Sooners’ win streak doesn’t share with those four streaks? Unlike the Hurricanes, Tide, Cornhuskers and Longhorns, Oklahoma did not win a national title over its years-long home winning streak.
Former players in the N.F.L.
34 DE Frank Alexander (Carolina), DT Remi Ayodele (New Orleans), LB Mike Balogun (Indianapolis), DE Jeremy Beal (Denver), QB Sam Bradford (St. Louis), OT Cory Brandon (Chicago), OT Jammal Brown (Washington), WR Ryan Broyles (Detroit), S Quinton Carter (Denver), OG Chris Chester (Washington), LB Keenan Clayton (Philadelphia), TE Brody Eldridge (St. Louis), DE Auston English (Cleveland), TE J.J. Finley (Carolina), CB Jamell Fleming (Arizona), CB Dominique Franks (Atlanta), TE Jermaine Gresham (Cincinnati), TE James Hanna (Dallas), K Garrett Hartley (New Orleans), WR Juaquin Iglesias (Houston), OG Davin Joseph (Tampa Bay), WR Cameron Kenney (Denver), LB Travis Lewis (Detroit), DE Ronnell Lewis (Detroit), OT Phil Loadholt (Minnesota), LB Curtis Lofton (New Orleans), RB Mossis Madu (Tampa Bay), DT Gerald McCoy (Tampa Bay), RB DeMarco Murray (Dallas), S Jonathan Nelson (Carolina), RB Adrian Peterson (Minnesota), S Reggie Smith (Carolina), OT Donald Stephenson (Kansas City), OT Trent Williams (Washington).
Arbitrary top five list
Non-outfielders born in Oklahoma
1. C Johnny Bench.
2. SS Al Dark.
3. SP Allie Reynolds.
4. 3B Harlond Clift.
5. RP Lindy McDaniel.
Bob Stoops (Iowa ’83), 139-34 after 13 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 five 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
No quarterback in college football has proved so much yet has so much left to prove. You’ll find Landry Jones’ name littered atop nearly every meaningful passing category in Oklahoma’s history: he already holds 13 career marks, including passing yards, touchdowns and completions. You’ll also find Jones mentioned as an underachiever, a physically gifted quarterback who throws too many interceptions, sputters without a lead target and can’t reverse the tide when things don’t go his way – all at once, Jones is built up for the way he’s led Oklahoma’s offense since breaking into the lineup as a redshirt freshman and torn down for the way O.U. disappeared from the national picture over the final month of last season.
It’s not easy being Landry Jones. He’s a major Heisman contender who has any many detractors as boosters, it seems. Jones sets and resets O.U. records, both weekly, seasonal and career marks, yet many wondered last fall whether the Sooners would have been better off going with sophomore Blake Bell (171 yards and 13 touchdowns), a bruising, run-first quarterback who was and is an utter question mark throwing the football. He’s been nearly flawless against Texas over the last two years, ripping the Longhorns to bits last season; owns two of the finest passing performances in school history, against Ball State and Kansas State last season; has 21 300-yard games, nine 400-yard games, six games with five or more touchdowns. Statistically, he’s the greatest quarterback to ever walk into Norman.
What’s missing? The moment – you know, the moment all great quarterbacks eventually have. Jones hasn’t had his yet: he hasn’t flipped head-over-heels into the end zone, for example. That’s what separates him from Sam Bradford or Jason White, his two most noteworthy predecessors, and it’s something that Jones really needs during his final season – he needs his moment to get the detractors off his back, not to mention to move from a major Heisman contender into a Heisman frontrunner. Does he throw too many interceptions? Well, Jones has tossed one pick for nearly every 44 attempts over the last two years. Does he need to throw more touchdowns? That’s not his fault: O.U. will give the ball to Bell near the goal line, which cuts into Jones’ numbers.
He’s just a great college quarterback. Not a perfect college quarterback, but a great one. And players like Jones don’t come around often, even at a place like O.U., and the Sooners – and his detractors – need to recognize this fact. Give Jones a solid running game, protect him on third down and give him four-receiver sets; given that, he’s as good as they come. I couldn’t be less worried about Jones’ place as the centerpiece of this offense. Neither should Oklahoma: he’ll get this offense rolling after last season’s late slide.
As noted, however, the Sooners do need to find Jones some targets in the passing game. He’ll have three favorites, led by junior Kenny Stills (61 receptions for 849 yards), the team’s leading returning receiver. One issue: Stills did not step up his game to help O.U. replace Broyles. That’s something I would have loved to see – and I know I’m not alone – from Stills down the stretch; instead, while he was adequately productive, Stills found it far more difficult to get open downfield without Broyles demanding attention. Nevertheless, Stills’ proven production stands out among a receiver corps devoid of similar experience.
Jones will also love Penn State transfer Justin Brown, who will immediately fill Broyles’ shoes on punt returns while giving this offense a degree of big-play ability. Brown has already impressed during fall camp, removing any doubt that he’d need a few weeks, if not more, to get on the same page with this new offense. A second newcomer, one of the more traditional variety, is viewed as Oklahoma’s next great receiver: Troy Metoyer, who enrolled in time for spring ball, should be an immediate starter in the Sooners’ three-receiver set. Who else can O.U. call upon in the passing game? Not Jaz Reynolds (41 for 715), at least not for the first portion of the season – Reynolds’ availability is still in doubt following his offseason suspension – and not Fresno State transfer Jalen Saunders, who won’t be eligible until 2013.
In the meantime, the Sooners will need JUCO transfer LaColtan Bester to step right into mix. Likewise with true freshmen Sterling Shepard — him most of all — Durron Neal and Derrick Woods, if only to provide ample depth. The Sooners will also call upon new faces at tight end, where they bring back no player with F.B.S. experience. JUCO transfer Brannon Green and true freshman Taylor McNamara, both of whom were on campus during the spring, as well as converted defensive end Geneo Grissom, will get first crack at replacing James Hanna and Trent Ratterree. Are there enough weapons for Jones and the passing game to click? Yes, but the margin for error isn’t high. What O.U. needs is for Brown and Metoyer to match their expectations – because doing so would leave this offense with at least three solid options.
Dominique Whaley (627 yards), the former walk-0n who plowed his way to an outstanding start to last season before breaking his ankle in October, is expected to resume his spot in the backfield for the season opener. That’s great news for O.U., which simply couldn’t replicate Whaley’s production over the final six games of last fall. Another positive side effect: Whaley’s return pushes junior Roy Finch (605 yards) into a secondary role, where he’s better suited. The Sooners also bring back junior Brennan Clay (274 yards), who can be an asset if not viewed as a lead back – Clay lacks any explosiveness, but he could give O.U. some help as a receiver and even line up at fullback in certain situations. A healthy Whaley will mean the world for this offense.
The same staff of offensive assistants returns from last season, from co-coordinators Jay Norvell and Josh Heupel to Cale Gundy, Bruce Kittle and James Patton, and this continuity will help O.U. as it slides several pieces into new roles on this side of the ball. But the changes on defense are fairly large, and they begin at the top: Mike Stoops returns to his old post as the Sooners’ coordinator, adding the title of defensive backs coach, and his fiery, ferocious and intense approach will light a fire under the backsides of a group that, quite frankly, was embarrassed by its inability to slow down Texas Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma State.
Stoops is one of two new additions, joining one of his former assistants at Arizona, Tim Kish, who will serve as Oklahoma’s assistant coordinator and linebackers coach. There’s never a bad time to add a coach of Stoops’ caliber – and that’s a massive understatement. While O.U. returns several key pieces from last year’s secondary, losing only one full-time starter in cornerback Jamell Fleming, the Sooners need a coach like Stoops, with his background, to amend this group’s far-too-common breakdowns against the pass. What can a coach like Mike Stoops achieve right from the start? He can tweak Oklahoma’s overall approach to slowing down opposing quarterbacks, for one.
The Sooners have already locked down a top five – the four starters and a nickel back. One change you’ve already seen from the new defensive staff is at cornerback: O.U. will no longer use a field and boundary cornerback but a left and right cornerback, meaning that the two starters will stick to one side rather than alternate based on ball placement. That’s going to mark a change for senior Demontre Hurst (55 tackles), an honorable mention all-Big 12 pick on the field side last fall. He’ll be joined at cornerback by junior Aaron Colvin (84 tackles), who will return to the outside after spending most of last season at strong safety.
Colvin’s move opens up his former role at safety for junior Tony Jefferson (74 tackles, 4 interceptions), who should be ecstatic over the opportunity to finally hold a locked-in starting role; Jefferson bounced around last season, moving from free safety to nickel back, and will benefit from remaining at one full-time spot along the back end. At free safety, O.U. returns an eight-game starter in senior Javon Harris (47 tackles, 3 interceptions). O.U. will turn the nickel back position over to junior Gabe Lynn (22 tackles), while sophomore Julian Wilson will slide into the slot when the Sooners go with a dime package.
The key for the entire back seven will be limiting the big plays, which was one of the major issues with last year’s defense: O.U. ranked 100th nationally in allowing plays of 40 or more yards. While Stoops looks to sew up the deficiencies in the secondary, Kish takes over a linebacker corps short a program great in Travis Lewis, who held down the weak side as well as any linebacker in Oklahoma’s proud history. For now, a bigger concern for O.U. is keeping senior middle linebacker Tom Wort (71 tackles, 3.5 sacks) healthy – and this has been an issue.
When running at full capacity, Wort is as good as anyone; just ask Florida State, which simply couldn’t touch the senior in last September’s non-conference date in Tallahassee. While there’s no doubting his toughness, nor his ability to do everything O.U. needs, Wort’s battles with injuries may end up defining his career – which is unfortunate, obviously. The Sooners can take some solace in the fact that Wort’s backup, senior Jaydan Bird, brings 39 games of experience into his final season.
Three reasons why Wort will have a big year: he’s motivated, he’s ready to assume a leadership role and, perhaps most of all, O.U. needs him to solidify the second level. With Lewis gone, Stoops and Kish will move junior Corey Nelson (59 tackles, 5.5 sacks) over to the weak side. It’s a move that’s been coming for Nelson, who has been groomed to be Lewis’ replacement since arriving on campus. And while it’ll be tough for the junior to match his predecessor’s production, Nelson’s experience as an edge rusher – he even spent some time down at end – will come in handy on third down. It’s hard to picture any defender other than senior Joseph Ibiloye holding down the strong side, though he’ll often step off the field when O.U. adds an extra defensive back.
As on offense, this defensive line is in flux due to injuries and attrition. Earlier this month, O.U. suspended would-be senior tackle Stacy McGee for a violation of team rules. McGee’s departure led the staff to move senior David King (31 tackles), a projected starter at end, inside to tackle. It won’t be a foreign move: King stepped inside on passing downs last fall, and has the frame to handle the load against the run – and he’ll also be used at end on occasion, I’d think. King now joins an interior rotation that also includes seniors Jamarkus McFarland (21 tackles) and Casey Walker (17 tackles), though the latter is still battling back from offseason shoulder surgery and lingering hamstring issues.
O.U. will go four deep inside, with redshirt freshman Jordan Phillips joining the above trio. That’s a solid group: King is going to help immensely, giving the Sooners far more disruptive ability than the interior would have featured had he remained outside. But the move comes with a cost, as you might think. With King’s move – and again, it may not permanent – Stoops and this staff will move sophomore Chuka Ndulue into a starting role with senior R.J. Washington (16 tackles, 5.0 sacks), last year’s backup to Frank Alexander. And there’s no proven depth: Oklahoma won’t have JUCO transfer Chaz Nelson for at least the first month and change, meaning that the Sooners will need immediate help from freshmen like Charles Tapper and Mike Onuoha.
What’s my take on the situation on defense? Well, adding a coach like Mike Stoops should help O.U. avoid the breakdowns that led to last season’s inability to limit big plays. That’s a big start. But I see holes – and as I’ve written with several teams over the last week, these aren’t major holes but rather the sort of holes that mean the difference between nine wins and perfection. It’s clear that the defensive line is a concern, particularly at end. Wort absolutely must remain healthy. Nelson needs to give O.U. some nastiness coming off the weak side. In my opinion, the defense will be better. How much better? I trust in Stoops – both Bob and Mike, actually – to get this group in order. But at this point, it’s time to take a wait-and-see approach.
Few kickers head into 2012 with more confidence than sophomore Michael Hunnicutt, who made his last 10 kicks to end last season and 21 of 24 overall. O.U. also returns senior Patrick O’Hara as its kickoff specialist, though Hunnicutt could eventually take over that role, and will have one more year from senior punter Tress Way, who is one of the nation’s best at pinning opponents inside the 20. While Finch is back in the return game, it will be interesting to see whether this staff uses one or more of its incoming freshmen on kickoffs. Brown will be an all-conference pick on punt returns.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line Hopes were high as the calendar turned to August. Was this Oklahoma’s best offensive line since the collection of next-level talent that paved the way for one of the most prolific offenses in college football history in 2008? If not, could you make the case that interior of Oklahoma’s line was the strongest in the country? You could, and many did – including one returning starter, senior center Ben Habern. Well, it hasn’t been a good month: Habern’s career came to an end due to linger back and neck ailments, robbing O.U. of a four-year starter in the middle, and senior right guard Tyler Evans suffered a season-ending knee injury. Just like that, a grouping of strength has turned into a question mark.
All you can say with certainty is that junior Gabe Ikard is going to be a star in Habern’s old spot. Ikard, a 25-game starter, spent five games at center last fall after Habern suffered an arm injury; he was as superb there as he was on left guard, earning first-team all-Big 12 honors. Ikard’s permanent move inside opens up left guard for sophomore Adam Shead, who started at guard for the five games Ikard spent in the middle. The Sooners will now round out the interior with junior Bronson Irwin, who steps into Evans’ shoes at right guard. When it comes to tackle, O.U. has three options: senior Lane Thompson – last year’s starting right tackle – on the blind side and junior Darryl Williams on the right; sophomore Tyrus Thompson at left tackle and Thompson at right; Thompson on the left side and Williams on the right.
O.U. is one injury along the interior from imploding. It’s that bad: Ikard is absolutely irreplaceable anyway, but if he, Shead or Irwin goes down then we’re looking at a worst-case scenario – we’re in a spot where O.U. has no bodies of consequence, even if the staff loves incoming freshman Ty Darlington, who could play all three spots inside. And the depth issue along the interior overshadows a questionable situation at tackle, where I don’t know if Oklahoma should feel secure about any one of its three possible starting permutations. If everyone stays healthy, the Sooners should be fine. If there injuries, any chance O.U. has at a national title – if not the Big 12 title – goes completely out the window.
Game(s) to watch
You won’t know anything about Oklahoma through two weeks – the Sooners’ scout team could take care of UTEP and Florida A&M with room to spare. But the year kicks into high gear against Kansas State on Sept. 22; that’s followed by a revenge game against Texas Tech and the Red River Rivalry, so you’ll know everything about O.U. by late October. The Sooners cap October at home against Notre Dame before taking on a November slate fraught with conference and national implications: at Iowa State, Baylor, at West Virginia, Oklahoma State and at T.C.U. – yes, the Sooners don’t end the year with Bedlam.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell I don’t think that Oklahoma can win the national championship. Why? Because I’m not confident in the Sooners’ ability to win the battle along the line of scrimmage. This starts on offense: Oklahoma has inexperience and depth issues up front, not just along the interior – though this stands out – but also at tackle, where the Sooners might end up with a pair of new starters. For now, the line could come close to the team’s pre-August expectations should the interior hold fast; one injury, however, could spell doom not just for this line but for the offense as a whole. On defense, King’s move inside helps address one issue, depth at tackle, but opens O.U. up to another issue at end, where Washington can’t do it all alone. You don’t win titles unless you win up front, as Oklahoma itself can attest.
Why the Sooners remain a Big 12 favorite – and a pretty solid pick to land an at-large B.C.S. bid – is because it can answer these questions come September. The offensive line could gel, perhaps using the lowered expectations as motivation. Someone will step up along the defensive line, with the program’s recent history as our guide; my best is on Washington. Jones is going to play his best football. A healthy Whaley provides balance. There’s no Broyles at receiver, but the lack of a top option should lead to more evenness – more receivers doing more, not merely one target moving the sticks on third down. The secondary is more experienced than at this point a year ago. The defense as a whole will get a jolt of electricity from its new coordinator. The Sooners are a better team than the version that collapsed down the stretch last fall – this is a team that can’t win a title, but it can win 11 games and finish among the top five.
I’ve got the Sooners and Texas one-two atop the Big 12. Or two-one, depending on how you look at it. I love the Longhorns’ defense; I think it’s a title-worthy group that could carry U.T. all the way to a major breakthrough. But I think that Oklahoma is the better team, most of all at quarterback, where the recent dichotomy between the two rivals has been striking. In my opinion, the Big 12 title and automatic B.C.S. berth is decided in Dallas in October. That I have O.U. behind Texas – behind, but almost in a dead-heat tie – has everything to do with the idea that the Sooners’ season will die in its tracks if there are any further losses along both lines.
Dream season Oklahoma’s offensive line responds to the challenge. So does the entire defense, Landry Jones and the receiver corps. The Sooners go 12-0, winning the Big 12 with ease, and earn a date with an SEC foe in the B.C.S. title game.
Nightmare season O.U. loses to Kansas State, Texas, Notre Dame, T.C.U. and Oklahoma State. This would be a nightmare.
In case you were wondering
Where do Oklahoma fans congregate? Check out the message board chatter at Sooner Fans, Sooner Scoop, Land Thieves and Sooners Illustrated. Additional coverage can found at the Web sites of The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World and The Norman Transcript. For a blog’s take, visit Blatant Homerism and Crimson and Cream Machine.
Oklahoma’s all-name nominee TE Chase Buck.
Through 116 teams 477,802.
Who is No. 8? The city that houses tomorrow’s university was the birthplace of a company that opened its first branch outside of its home state in 1988.
Tags: Aaron Colvin, Adam Shead, Big 12, Blake Bell, Bob Stoops, Corey Nelson, David King, Demontre Hurst, Dominique Whaley, Gabe Ikard, Geneo Grissom, Jamarkus McFarland, Javon Harris, Jay Norvell, Josh Heupel, Justin Brown, Kenny Stills, Landry Jones, Lane Johnson, Miichael Hunnicutt, Mike Stoops, Oklahoma, R.J. Washington, Roy Finch, Tim Kish, Tom Wort, Tony Jefferson, Tress Way, Trey Metoyer, Ty Darlington
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