No matter whether or not I feel they are more deserving of a title shot than Alabama (and I have spent a good portion of the week saying they are not), the facts are this: Oklahoma State is 10-1, has a chance to win their first outright Big 12 title and might sneak into the national title game with a big enough win over Oklahoma Saturday night in Stillwater.
The main problem with this: Oklahoma State does not beat Oklahoma.
Oklahoma lost to Oklahoma State five times between 1995 and 2002. This was both notable and strange for one reason: between 1967 and 2011, the Sooners have lost just once to the Cowboys outside of that window (31-24 in 1976). That's it. Six wins in 45 years, five of which came in an eight-year span, and three of which came in OU's 1990s dark period.
When rivalries are this one-sided, the results become almost preordained. Be it Sooner Superiority, Squinky, or some other force, Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State. It's just what they do. Pinpoint passes get dropped (after phantom penalties are called), unlikely bombs find their way into the right hands (twice) ... things happen. But OSU fans have to find hope in two things this year: 1) Oklahoma State is not Oklahoma State this year, and 2) Oklahoma really is not Oklahoma this year. That Oklahoma State has already claimed their first share of a conference title since 1976 tells you Oklahoma State has taken a significant step forward this year, whether or not they make the national title game. Meanwhile, Oklahoma has just been decimated by injuries.
If this game does not become about the helmets on the heads, and the fact that Oklahoma has another long Bedlam winning streak, then on paper, Oklahoma State takes this one. Oklahoma has shown that its upside is quite a bit higher, but they haven't seen much of that upside of late, and for good reason.
Of all the injuries suffered by Oklahoma in 2011 -- linebacker Travis Lewis began the season with a broken foot, and multiple defensive backs were injured during the shocking loss to Texas Tech -- no two have been more costly than running back Dom Whaley's broken ankle and receiver Ryan Broyles' torn ACL. Adj. Score is a nice tool to use for measuring the impact of a specific lineup or injury; it adjusts a given performance to account for the opponent at hand and, therefore, allows us to more accurately measure how a team has performed with or without a given player.
Let's display this another way:
- Oklahoma With Dom Whaley (who got hurt against Kansas): 38.0 Adj. PPG
Oklahoma Without Dom Whaley: 32.9 Adj. PPG
Difference: -5.1 Adj. PPG
- Oklahoma With Ryan Broyles (who got hurt against Texas A&M): 37.3 Adj. PPG
Oklahoma Without Ryan Broyles: 28.7 Adj. PPG
Difference: -8.6 Adj. PPG
It would stand to reason, of course, that even an excellent offense, with a history of strong recruiting, would suffer when losing its No. 1 running back and an all-time great receiver. With Roy Finch and Kenny Stills assuming the No. 1 spots at running back and receiver, respectively, the quality has suffered (especially when you throw in a suspension for No. 2 receiver Jaz Reynolds, who didn't play against Iowa State, and injuries to multiple linemen). Their Rushing Success Rate+ has gone from 113.3 with Whaley (100.0 is the national average) to 105.9 without him, and similarly, their Standard Downs Success Rate+ has fallen from 113.7 to 105.2.
Broyles' injury, meanwhile, has been even more costly. Two games is not a healthy sample size, of course, but the Sooners' Passing S&P+ has fallen from 123.2 with him to 99.1 without him, their Passing PPP+ (an explosiveness measure) has fallen from 127.6 to 88.4, their Passing Downs S&P+ has fallen from 130.7 to 100.1, and their Passing Downs PPP+ has fallen from 141.6 to a below-average 92.7. The passing game has gone from excellent to dicey. It should improve with Reynolds' expected return (he caught seven of nine passes for 114 yards against Baylor in the Sooners' first game without Broyles), but OU's explosiveness in particular has been lacking.
There are plenty of questions associated with tonight's game: how will Oklahoma State perform after two weeks of stewing on their upset loss to Iowa State? Will the weight of conference and national title aspirations hold them down? Will the Cowboys' defense rebound after their bend-don't-break routine simply broke against Iowa State? Who will Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones look to on passing downs? But the most pressing question on the table is simply this: With their upside tamped down, does Oklahoma have enough firepower to keep up with Oklahoma State? In the end, they couldn't keep up with Baylor, after all. Players like Finch, Stills and Reynolds will have to play at their highest levels. The longer the Sooners can keep things interesting, the more the advantage likely swings toward them. But can they indeed keep things interesting?