2011 Season Preview: History, Celebration And The Oklahoma Sooners

Nobody celebrates their history as well as the Oklahoma Sooners. For the 2011 season to live up to the "Preseason No. 1" hype, the line play will have to improve enough to complement the marquee skill position talent.

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

Nobody celebrates their history better than the University of Oklahoma. Attend a game in Norman, and you will find it inescapable. Steve Owens, Barry Switzer, Lee Roy Selmon, Jack Mildren, Bud Wilkerson, Keith Jackson, Billy Sims, Jason White, Billy Vessels, Jamelle Holieway, Eddie Crowder, Tony Casillas, Sam Bradford, Greg Pruitt, Roy Williams. You see evidence of the seven national titles everywhere you look. Heisman winners greet you outside the stadium. One Heisman winner in particular is almost literally inescapable -- and un-shame-able -- within state borders.

To put it another way, Oklahoma fans don't tend to glorify the good. Not unless it leads to the great. All-conference players and conference titles? That's nice. But All-Americans and national titles are better.

When the Sooners host Tulsa on September 3, they will do so as the No. 1 team in the country. It will be the 19th season since 1950 that they'll have played at last one game with the AP's top spot and the fifth in 12 years. The 2010 season may have just been good, but it's easy to see why pundits are beginning to think 2011 could be great. They will have go-to star power in quarterback Landry Jones, receiver Ryan Broyles and, when he returns from a broken foot, linebacker Travis Lewis. But the difference between good and great could be determined by how much Oklahoma improves in the trenches. The Sooners were manhandled down the stretch, on both sides of the ball, against both Missouri and Texas A&M; it was a jarring sight for those with recent memories of Gerald McCoy, Phil Loadholt, etc. It put the slightest damper on a 2010 campaign that did still see Oklahoma winning their fourth Big 12 title in five years and their first BCS bowl in six attempts.

(That Billy Sims commercial is so totally real, by the way. There are more like them on YouTube, if you dare to search for them.)

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 12-2 | Adj. Record: 11-3 | Final F/+ Rk**: 8
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Utah State 31-24 W 20.4 - 25.8 L
11-Sep Florida State 47-17 W 49.2 - 14.7 W
18-Sep Air Force 27-24 W 31.3 - 26.5 W
25-Sep Cincinnati 31-29 W 24.6 - 28.8 L
2-Oct Texas 28-20 W 25.0 - 28.7 L
16-Oct Iowa State 52-0 W 47.3 - (-5.1) W
23-Oct Missouri 27-36 L 30.5 - 39.7 W
30-Oct Colorado 43-10 W 33.3 - 12.8 W
6-Nov Texas A&M 19-33 L 23.6 - 23.3 W
13-Nov Texas Tech 45-7 W 40.0 - 10.9 W
20-Nov Baylor 53-24 W 28.2 - 16.9 W
27-Nov Oklahoma State 47-41 W 30.9 - 18.9 W
4-Dec Nebraska 23-20 W 29.7 - 2.8 W
1-Jan Connecticut 48-20 W 42.5 - 17.5 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 37.2 14 21.8 33
Adj. Points Per Game 33.3 21 18.1 8

A five-second glimpse at last year's schedule and results suggests that Oklahoma thrived early in the season, got to No. 1 in the BCS standings, then faltered before rallying. Really, though, OU's struggles came in September. Defensive holes led to subpar performances against Utah State, Air Force, Cincinnati and Texas, and against "average" opponents with average breaks, OU would have quite possibly had a losing record after the Red River Rivalry. The exception, of course, was their pasting of Florida State.

Their two 'real' losses, meanwhile, came at the hands of hot opponents playing very well. OU played at a high enough level to beat most teams, but Missouri and Texas A&M, at home, were just better. In the Sooners' final nine games, they were a mostly elite team.

First Five Games: Oklahoma 30.1 Adj. PPG, Opponents 24.9 (+5.2)
Final Nine Games: Oklahoma 34.0, Opponents 15.3 (+18.7)

How many times have you read something to the effect of "Team A looked great in the ___ Bowl, and they look to carry that momentum into the following season" in a preview mag? Doesn't happen that way. But nine-games is not "they played well in their bowl game." Oklahoma was one of the best teams in the country over the final two months of the season, and that type of momentum usually does indeed carry forward to the next season.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 15 11 21
RUSHING 52 34 63 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 7 6 7 90
Standard Downs 22 16 29 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 20 25 19 25
Redzone 30 32 27
Q1 Rk 6 1st Down Rk 23
Q2 Rk 21 2nd Down Rk 12
Q3 Rk 30 3rd Down Rk 27
Q4 Rk 75

Oklahoma has won at least 11 games in nine of the last 11 seasons, and while skill position talent -- Sam Bradford, Adrian Peterson, Jason White, Mark Clayton, etc. -- gets a large portion of the credit for that, Oklahoma's consistent ability to dominate in the trenches was an extremely underrated aspect of their success. In 2009-10, it was perhaps their biggest liability. Life was harder than it needed to be for DeMarco Murray (1,214 yards, 4.3 per carry, +6.8 Adj. POE, 15 TD), Roy Finch (398 yards, 4.7 per carry, +0.4 Adj. POE, 2 TD) and the Oklahoma runners in 2010; their Line Yardage rankings suggest that they were not getting as much of a push as they needed, and their overall numbers suffered because of it.

Murray still thrived as an all-purpose threat (1,847 combined rushing and receiving yards), but his per-carry averages were quite average. Right tackle Eric Mensik departs, but eight of the line's top ten on the depth chart return, including six with starting experience (81 career starts). An improved line alone could result in some stronger numbers from this year's running backs despite the loss of Murray. Finch has struggled with fumbleitis, opening the door for sophomore Brennan Clay (127 yards, 3.5 per carry, -4.9 Adj. POE), former blue-chipper Jermie Calhoun and incoming blue-chipper Brandon Williams. Old-school fullback type Trey Millard (209 combined rushing and receiving yards, 4 TD) will have a role to play too. The running backs are promising if unproven, but if the line doesn't improve, the Sooners will continue to be vulnerable to stagnation against teams with strong front fours.

Despite an on-and-off running game, Oklahoma coaches put their trust in the hands of Landry Jones (4,718 yards, 7.6 per pass, 66% completion rate, 38 TD, 12 TD), and it mostly paid off. No quarterback had more responsibility foisted on his shoulders than Jones. On standard downs, Oklahoma stayed relatively conservative -- they ran 57% of the time, compared to the national average of 61%. But on passing downs, they simply told Jones to make a play. Oklahoma ran just 22% of the time on passing downs, compared to the national average of 34%. A disproportionate number of his passing attempts came in passing situations, which makes the future reverend's stat line even more impressive than it immediately looks. (It also made life rather difficult in super-hostile environments like Columbia and College Station.) With more running success, and therefore fewer passing downs passes, Jones might be able to make a run at becoming Oklahoma's third straight multi-year starter to finish his career with a Heisman. And if that isn't a recruiting draw, I'm not sure what is.

Other tidbits:

  • The beating Ryan Broyles (1,622 yards, 12.4 per catch, 73% catch rate, 14 TD) took in 2010 was heavy. Including kick and punt returns, the 5-foot-11, 183-pound Broyles averaged 11.9 touches per game. I figured he would declare for the NFL Draft just so he could make some money before taking on another 130+ hits in 2011, but he did not. Broyles and sophomores Kenny Stills (786 yards, 12.9 per catch, 59% catch rate, 5 TD) and Trey Franks (263 yards, 9.1 per catch, 69% catch rate, 1 TD) could be a downright terrifying receiving corps, especially when you throw in bruising redzone threats like tight ends James Hanna and Trent Ratterree (combined: 490 yards, 17.5 per catch, 61% catch rate, 8 TD) and Millard. (And if they get anything out of likely academic casualty and five-star freshman Trey Metoyer, all the better.) Of course, that isn't saying much; Broyles and I would make for a decent pair.
  • Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the 2011 Oklahoma offense will come from the booth, as stalwart offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson took the Indiana head coaching job. Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell will split the duties, and it will be interesting to see if Oklahoma remains as disproportionately aggressive, both in terms of their passing downs play-calling and their no-huddle, run-more-plays-than-anybody-else style. (In terms of Adj. Pace, Oklahoma was once again the fastest team in the country in 2010.) More big plays on early downs could lead to some ridiculous offensive numbers in 2011.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 8 2 20
RUSHING 12 8 20 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 10 4 26 18
Standard Downs 12 6 24 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 5 3 9 13
Redzone 12 6 17
Q1 Rk 12 1st Down Rk 8
Q2 Rk 2 2nd Down Rk 6
Q3 Rk 4 3rd Down Rk 15
Q4 Rk 89

If you were to describe a young-but-talented defense using some standard F.O. terms/concepts, it would go something like this: "Good efficiency (success rate), occasional problem with big plays (PPP+), improves as the season progresses."

That's also exactly how you would describe the Oklahoma defense in 2010. The Sooners couldn't stop Utah State or Air Force in September, but following their loss to Missouri, they circled the wagons (schooners) and became the 'Oklahoma Defense' again. They were one of the strongest efficiency defenses in the country (second overall in Success Rate), and though their overall ratings were dragged down by some good-not-great PPP+ numbers, there is clearly a ton of potential with this unit considering how much returns in 2011.

If there are potential weaknesses, they come in two general areas: 1) the pass rush, and 2) the safety positions. OU's overall sack rates were solid, but they were powered heavily by blitzing success on passing downs. Their standard downs sack ratings were quite average, so it is unclear how effective the line itself was. Jeremy Beal (57.0 tackles, 19.0 TFL/sacks, 3 FF) is gone after 16 years in Norman, so that can't help. Frank Alexander (29.5 tackles, 13.0 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU, countless cries of disrespect) will have to hope he gets help from either part-time end Ronnell Lewis (30.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks, status questionable for 2011), David King (8.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks), former blue-chipper R.J. Washington (4.0 tackles) or ... well, somebody, is the main point here.

Aside from Beal, the other two primary losses come at the safety position. Quinton Carter and Jonathan Nelson combined for 155.0 tackles and six interceptions. They might be missed, though backups Tony Jefferson (54.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT as a freshman, plus a strong Twitter presence), Aaron Colvin (27.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) and Javon Harris (21.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU) offered hints of some serious upside, especially Jefferson, who is actually listed as a strongside linebacker at the moment and will play any of about four different positions at some point in 2011. The return of cornerback Jamell Fleming (60.0 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 14 PBU) after academic difficulty is a huge boost; he is a potential All-American and elevates the Oklahoma secondary from interesting and athletic to potentially elite. His big-play ability is rare -- you will not find many cornerbacks who had eight tackles for loss and 19 passes defensed -- but while his consistency is still a work in progress (both on the field and in the classroom, evidently), there is a lot to like here.

Other tidbits:

  • Linebacker Travis Lewis (86.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 2 FR) was a nearly unanimous preseason All-American before breaking his foot; he will miss approximately the first month of the season. His absence hamstrings the Sooners during their trip to Tallahassee and potentially the week after, when they host Missouri. Still, the athletic potential is high among the linebackers. Tom Wort (49.5 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks) was thrust into a position of heavy responsibility last year and, predictably, had plenty of up and down moments. The same goes for Jefferson, sophomore Corey Nelson (16.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks), and juniors Jaydan Bird (8.5 tackles) and Joseph Ibiloye (9.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU). That experience, though, should pay off down the line.
  • On a down-for-down basis, Oklahoma's defense was excellent in 2011. When they did suffer a breakdown, however, it was a big one. Long passes to Cincinnati's D.J. Woods, Missouri's Jerrell Jackson, Texas A&M's Ryan Swope, and a couple different Utah State receivers ... a random, 60-yard run by Texas' D.J. Monroe ... et cetera. (This says nothing of the FOUR kick return touchdowns they allowed last year.) If experience tamps down the big plays, then this unit will much more closely resemble the defense that took the field over the final two-thirds of the season.

Oklahoma's 2010 Season Set to Music

Bob Dylan's "Highlands." Because it starts very slow, but midway through you're totally sucked in.

(WARNING: do not search for Bob Dylan songs on YouTube unless you are mentally prepared for the deluge of terrible covers you are going to encounter. In fact, just don't do it at all. It's not worth it. Just buy Time Out Of Mind and listen to it on your own. I have now saved you from two harrowing YouTube searches in one piece.)

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 3
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 7
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +14 / +9.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (8, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -3.7

Like Alabama, Oklahoma has more going for it than just about any team in the country: top five in recent performance, top ten in recruiting, interception-heavy turnover margin they may be able to duplicate, boatload of returning starters. Alabama got the nod for the No. 1 team in our Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections, but really, there were only two legitimate candidates. The line play scares me, but at this point in the preseason, something about every single team makes me wary.

The schedule could be as big an obstacle as anything. Not only does the Big 12's nine-game conference schedule begin, and not only do they have to play Oklahoma State in Stillwater for the second straight year ... but they also have to head off to Tallahassee to take on Florida State. That's two more road games versus preseason Top 10 teams than Alabama faces. Plus ... by mid-October, the Sooners will have played Florida State, Missouri and what will likely be an improved Texas team. Another slow start is not recommended.

 

Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! Download your copy now; paper copies are due later this week.

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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