It happened to Barry Switzer, too, right around the same point in his regime. Oklahoma was ranked second in the 1981 preseason polls and finished 20th. They started ninth in 1982 and finished 16th. They started second in 1983 and finished 8-4 and unranked. Granted, the series of underachievement didn't last very long, but it was stark. After losing a combined eight games in his first eight years as Oklahoma's head coach, Switzer lost 12 from 1981-83. The coaching staff got shuffled around, the offense suffered from a bit of an identity crisis (Wishbone? I-formation? And what happens now that we've signed Troy Aikman?), all-world recruit Marcus Dupree failed to pan out, the Sooners ceded control of the Big 8 to Nebraska, lost two of three to Texas … it was a bit of a mess in Soonerland.
Even in 1984, Oklahoma lost by 17 at Kansas, fought back enough to have an outside chance at the national title, then got thumped by Washington in the Orange Bowl. Things were taking a disappointing turn in Norman … and then the Sooners went 33-3 in three years, winning a national title, almost winning two more, and going 33-0 versus teams not named the Miami Hurricanes. Recruit really good players, coach them up, and your string of disappointments won't last too long.
At least, that's what Bob Stoops hopes. Stoops has built one of the nation's most consistently solid programs in Norman, winning at least 10 games in 10 of 12 seasons, winning seven conference titles, and attending eight BCS bowls. But since coming out of relative nowhere to win the 2000 national title, Stoops' Sooners have finished lower in the postseason polls than in the preseason polls in nine of 11 seasons. Granted, that is always going to be a likely outcome when you start so high in the polls -- OU has begun each of the last 11 seasons in the top 10 and three of the last four in the top four -- but that probably doesn't quell the feeling of disappointment brewing in Norman right now. After making three BCS title game appearances in five years from 2000-04 (the last two of which ALSO came with feelings of disappointment as a banged-up Jason White failed to move the ball against LSU in 2003, and the Sooners got absolutely pasted by USC in 2004), the Sooners have been back to the promised land just once since, coming up two goal line stands short of the title against Florida in 2008.
The Sooners began 2009 ranked third and finished unranked. They reached No. 1 in 2010, then got pushed around in losses at Missouri and Texas A&M. They began 2011 ranked first and finished 16th while their in-state mates, Oklahoma State, took the conference title. The injury bug has not been kind to Stoops and company by any means (Sam Bradford, the primary source of their high 2009 ranking, barely played; meanwhile, receiver Ryan Broyles and about half the defense missed time in 2011), but that only matters so much in the perceptions battle. As I mentioned last year, Oklahoma fans don't celebrate the good much, only the great. And greatness has been a little more elusive than normal recently.
In 2012, Oklahoma attempts to withstand an enormous amount of transition (new defensive coordinator, completely rebuilt receiving corps) while dealing with another visit from the injury bug (center Ben Habern quit football because of neck issues, and guard Tyler Evans is out for the season with an ACL injury; the two had combined for 59 career starts). But there Oklahoma is, once again starting out in the top five with a schedule (Texas, Notre Dame, at West Virginia, Oklahoma State, at TCU) that even a true top five team might not be able to survive without a couple of losses. It seems the Sooners have been set up to fail before they even start. But the Sooners were a lot closer to an elite level of play last year than one would think, and they could be again with a little bit of luck. It is impossible to figure out what OU is capable of in 2012, but the odds are good that, at some point, the pieces will once again come together nicely for Stoops, even if they haven't lately.
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. […]
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.
To its credit, Oklahoma most certainly did not start slow. The Sooners were very much ready for the challenge the first five games of the season offered. They handled a late haymaker from Florida State and still won by 10 in Tallahassee. They fell behind early to Missouri but rallied to win by 10. They destroyed Texas, 55-17. They were looking every bit the part of a national title contender despite quite a bit of shuffling in the secondary. But then they inexplicably lost to Texas Tech at home, falling behind 31-7 before rallying and falling short. And after a perfect performance at Kansas State, they suffered a catastrophic loss when Ryan Broyles tore up his knee in a comfortable win over Texas A&M. Over the last month of the season, the offense sank from elite to below average.
First Nine Games: Oklahoma 32.7 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 21.3 (plus-11.4)
Final Four Games: Oklahoma 26.5 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 23.8 (plus-2.7)
Perhaps no single injury in the country had more of an impact on a team than Broyles'. Granted, he wasn't responsible for Oklahoma's defensive issues in a 45-38 loss to Baylor (though one could argue that 38 points is below average versus the Baylor defense), but his absence was certainly felt in half-lifeless offensive performances versus Iowa State and Iowa, and without him, Landry Jones had exactly zero reliable targets against the ultra-fast Oklahoma State secondary.
If you're the optimistic type, however, you could twist Oklahoma's late fade into a positive. The Sooners were going to have to learn to live without Broyles in 2012, and they got a head start in November and December.
How important are chemistry and repetition to an offense? We hear about it a lot -- "Quarterback A and Receivers B and C have played together for two or three years now, and they have great chemistry in the passing game!" It makes perfect sense, really, but in 2012, Oklahoma hopes that chemistry isn't the basis for a great offense. Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins hadn't exactly played together much before 2011, and that worked out okay for Clemson, right?
You see, Oklahoma enters 2012 with a receiving corps filled to the brim with former four- and five-star recruits. But only one member of this receiving corps has ever caught a pass from Landry Jones in a game. The rest are either transfers, junior college transfers or freshmen. Oklahoma signed an incredible 10 receivers and tight ends in their 2012 recruiting class (they added four running backs, as well, meaning we could get an answer to the age-old question, "Can you have too many running backs?"), and at least one transfer will play as well. It was an epic rebuilding job of a unit that needed epic rebuilding, and it will be fascinating to see whether it pays off for the Sooners this fall.
Here's a step-by-step look at the travails of the Sooner passing game since Ryan Broyles went down on November 5.
- November 19: Kenny Stills and Jaz Reynolds catch 13 of 20 passes for 189 yards in a loss to Baylor. Reynolds is particularly impressive, catching seven of nine for 114, but he suffers a shoulder injury.
- November 26: With Reynolds out, DeJuan Miller catches seven of nine passes for 86 yards and Stills catches five of 10 for 70 in an easy, if rather unimpressive win over Iowa State. Jones averages just 6.0 yards per pass attempt with two interceptions against a solid but less-than-amazing ISU secondary.
- December 3: In a jarring, 34-point loss to Oklahoma State, Jones completes just 54 percent of his passes and averages 4.2 yards per attempt. Reynolds catches two of five passes and gets hurt again. Stills and Trey Franks catch 14 of 17, but for only 112 yards.
- December 30: Stills and Franks combine to catch five of 10 passes for just 40 yards as a pared-down OU offense does just enough to keep Iowa at bay in the Insight Bowl.
- February 1: No one can say Stoops doesn't address his needs with the 2012 recruiting class. Stoops signs 10 pass catchers.
- March 31: Five-star freshman Trey Metoyer, who was originally part of the 2011 class but did not have his academics in order, does this in practice:
- April 14: Metoyer dominates in the spring game.
- May 7: Kameel Jackson announces via Twitter that he is transferring to Texas A&M.
- May 9: Fresno State's Jalen Saunders, one of the nation's best deep threats, announces that he is transferring to OU. It is later revealed that Oklahoma hopes to get him a waiver to be eligible immediately, but nobody knows why they think that's a possibility. (The NCAA has yet to rule on Saunders' eligibility.)
- May 9: Bob Stoops suspends four players, including three receivers (Franks, Reynolds, Jackson) for what must have been some pretty impressive team rules violations.
- May 17: Jackson announces that he is staying at OU after all.
- July 30: It is revealed that star junior college transfer Courtney Gardner will not be eligible until January.
- August 4: Jackson is officially dismissed from the program. Reynolds and Franks are put back on the roster, but they are still suspended for an undetermined amount of time.
- August 4: Justin Brown, Penn State's No. 2 receiver last year and once a four-star signee, announces that he is transferring to OU. He is eligible immediately.
The Oklahoma receiving corps underwent more change than some full rosters do in an offseason. As a result, we have a little bit of a change, especially if Saunders is somehow ruled eligible. (And with the NCAA's Wheel Of Destiny, who knows, maybe there's a chance.)
This Year's Potential Top Five: Trey Metoyer, Stills, Justin Brown, (Jalen Saunders), Random Four-Star Freshman A (Durron Neal? Sterling Shepard? Derrick Woods? Tight end Taylor McNamara?), Random JUCO Transfer B (tight end Brannon Green?)
Law of averages says this receiving corps has all the depth Landry Jones needs. But until it proves itself worthy, we don't know for sure.
What we do know for sure:
1. Jones is pretty good. He catches a lot of flack and doubt, but while he almost certainly isn't Sam Bradford, he also hasn't had nearly the weapons Bradford had. He completed 63 percent of his passes, and OU ranked 18th in Passing Success Rate+ (efficiency) but without Broyles, there was just no semblance of a deep threat. Lord knows there are candidates this time around.
2. Dom Whaley is both good and healthy. The walk-on transfer from nearby Langston University came out of nowhere to take charge at the running back position. He rushed for 131 yards against Tulsa, 83 against Texas, and 165 against Kansas, but he fractured his ankle against Kansas State and was done for the season. Between junior Roy Finch (I almost called Finch "enigmatic" in his production, but on a team that still has Jaz Reynolds, nobody else can earn that adjective), junior college transfer Damien Williams and freshman Alex Ross, a solid backup should emerge.
3. The Belldozer will still be involved. Quarterback/Road Grader Blake Bell improved OU's short-yardage rushing ability late in the 2011 season, scoring 13 touchdowns on 43 carries (while throwing just four passes). He will be utilized again in 2012. Between Bell and fullback Trey Millard, the Sooners can absolutely run over you anytime they need two or three yards. Unfortunately, it is difficult to drive 80 yards like that. (Millard, by the way, probably needs to touch the ball more. He averaged 6.9 yards per carry and 6.9 yards per target last season. You can work with that.)
4. The offensive line was hit hard by injuries to Ben Habern and Tyler Evans. Instead of heading into the season with four returning starters and 102 career starts, it's now two and 43. Gabe Ikard is still an all-conference performer (he moves from guard to center in Habern's absence), and sophomores Adam Shead (a mean guard) and Daryl Williams (tackle) both have loads of potential. But the line ranked just 46th in Adj. Line Yards WITH Habern and Evans, and it didn't perform incredibly well this spring, so it's a lot to ask for the unit to improve much without them.
Offensive co-coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell certainly have a lot of pieces and raw talent to work with, but no potentially great offense has more questions to answer than this one.
Compared to the offense, the defense saw seemingly minor transition. All it had to do was replace its coordinator of the last 13 years, Brent Venables. The defense overall has fallen victim to a combination of high expectations and ridiculously potent Big 12 offenses. The Sooners still ranked eighth in the schedule-adjusted Def. F/+ rankings last year (sixth versus the run, 10th versus the pass), but while they looked fantastic against iffy offenses like Ball State, Iowa State, Iowa and, to a certain extent, Florida State, they clearly needed something a little extra for offenses like Baylor's and Oklahoma State's, especially in light of the wounded offense. And it goes without saying that the defense completely fell apart against Texas Tech.
Staring at a fresh start and a pretty incredible salary, Venables left for the same position at Clemson, and Mike Stoops returned to Norman. A co-coordinator with Venables for years before he took the Arizona head coaching job, Stoops is back with his brother, and while the approach probably won't be too different, we'll see about the results.
In terms of personnel, perhaps the biggest change comes up front. Ends Ronnell Lewis and disrespect king Frank Alexander have both left for the pros, taking their 32.0 tackles for loss, 14.0 sacks and 15 passes defended with them. There are plenty of replacement options -- senior David King (4.0 tackles for loss), all-or-nothing former five-star recruit R.J. Washington (13.0 tackles in 2011, 5.0 of which were sacks), four-star redshirt freshmen Marquis Anderson and Nathan Hughes -- but little proven down-to-down consistency. The ends should get plenty of help from a deep group of tackles, however; Oklahoma ranked 10th in Adj. Line Yards, in part because of the wall created by seniors Stacy McGee, Jamarkus McFarland and Casey Walker. Throw in "physical freak" Jordan Phillips and other youngsters, and you've got one of the better, deeper tackle units in the country.
The linebacking corps must replace a longtime stalwart in Travis Lewis, but in juniors Tom Wort and Corey Nelson (combined: 97.5 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss), it still has playmaking potential. Consistency has long been an issue with Wort, however. Meanwhile, what was once a thin, banged-up secondary, with players forced to play away from their natural positions, now returns quite a few interesting pieces. Corner Demontre Hurst (one interception, 11 passes broken up, 4.0 tackles for loss) is a star, free safety Tony Jefferson (four interceptions, three passes broken up, 7.5 tackles for loss, four sacks) was dangerous in about 26 different ways as Venables' hybrid nickel back/outside linebacker, and junior Aaron Colvin (4.5 tackles for loss, six passes broken up) gets to move back to his natural cornerback position. There are plenty of pieces in place here, and the defense is proven at almost everywhere but the end position. Mike Stoops certainly isn't inheriting a rebuilding project.
When you begin as a top five team and conference favorite, and your recent history is filled with missed expectations, it will be hard to be satisfied with anything less than a conference title and top-10 finish, right?
Oklahoma plays six opponents ranked in the preseason Top 25, but the good news, as it were, is that only two of these games take place on the opponent's home field. Kansas State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma State visit Owen Field, and the Texas game, of course, takes place at the Cotton Bowl. Home-road splits are among the reasons why the Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 gives the Sooners a 59 percent chance of going 8-1 or 9-0 in Big 12 play this year and gives them a 16 percent chance of going 12-0 overall. But projections had them beating Texas Tech and Baylor last year, too. The landmines tend to be the problem for the Sooners, not the game-to-game quality and odds.
The watchword for OU in 2012, and every year for that matter, is "potential." Landry Jones is a "potential" Heisman candidate. The receiving corps has about eight "potential" stars. The secondary could "potentially" be really strong. The injury bug might "potentially" be done biting. Last year's chemistry issues have "potentially" been rectified. The defense as a whole has all the "potential" in the world. But you really could say that about the Sooners every year. The pieces just haven't come together in a while. Will 2012 be any different? Or will this be another "10 wins and a couple of disappointing losses" season?
There are worse things in the world than that, of course. But Barry Switzer eventually learned how to avoid the landmines again. Now it's Stoops' turn.
For more on Sooner football, visit Oklahoma blog Crimson And Cream Machine.
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