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The Contenders: Oklahoma

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Making the case for Number One.
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There’s a sort of ironic pessimism about Oklahoma as a championship frontrunner, after the Sooners were blown out of another BCS bowl in January, on the heels of embarrassing losses to USC in the Orange Bowl in 2005 and Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl in 2007. “Can’t win the big one,” is a weird tag to append to a program that’s won four of the last five Big 12 championships, after all, under a coach that won a stunning mythical championship in his second year, and been one of the few teams (along with USC and Ohio State) consistently good enough to make the Series a practical birthright. 

Loadholt, during a diet.
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Ergo, unimpressive as it was with plenty of pride and future poll cachet at stake the last time out, when the team that’s won more games and as many conference championships as any team in the country in its coach’s tenure returns 16 starters of this caliber, the polls have to consider a mulligan.

Bow Down. The best case for the Sooners to open at the top of the ledger is a simple, conventional eyeball test: as a sum of returning personnel, OU’s depth chart is as daunting as any you’re going to find. This is especially the case on the offensive line, which returns intact, was very good to begin with and is virtually guaranteed to top those fairly silly “unit rankings” in the preseason mags. Last year’s front averaged over 320 pounds per man and allowed a paltry sack per game; all six full or part-time starters are back, with a left side (350-pound Phil Loadholt and 330-pound Duke Robinson) that’s projected right now to go in the first round next April. When you start veering toward half a ton on one side, it’s not surprising that three different running backs went over 600 yards, or, off of the running game, that a redshirt freshman led the nation in touchdown percent and overall pass efficiency. Sam Bradford (redshirt freshman), DeMarco Murray (redshirt freshman) and Jermaine Gresham (true sophomore) were basically pups last year, and given the support they have up front, that’s pretty frightening. 

Re: the loss of Malcolm Kelly at receiver, he came off during his pre-draft freefall as kind of an attitude problem; there’s no way from this vantage point to know if that’s true, but anyway, Juaquin Iglesias had more catches, Gresham had more touchdowns and Manuel Johnson’s straight ahead speed makes him a comparable deep threat. OU scored 51 against Miami, 28 against Texas, 41 and 38 against Missouri, 42 against Texas A&M and 49 against Oklahoma State  last year; even in the three losses, it scored 24, 27 and 28, respectively. There’s no reason to think the offense won’t average 40 again. 

The only complaint on the defense – on the entire team, really – is the secondary, which still has one of the most active, disruptive safeties in the country (Nic Harris) and shouldn’t have to cover long with Auston English, DeMarcus Granger and Gerald McCoy on the front four, three more relative pups (two third-year sophomores and a reshirt freshman) who were all-Big 12 by the coaches in their first year as starters.

The second-best case for the Sooners, even if you don’t like the holes in the secondary, is the schedule: the non-conference “heavies” are Cincinnati, Washington and TCU, “could be tough” games OU will still be expected to win by a mile. That leaves three big conference games: Texas, Kansas and Texas Tech, the last two in Norman, and again – though each of those teams has its bandwagon – all of which OU is definitely favored to win going into the season. There won’t be anyone who can convincingly explain why this team shouldn’t be on a 12-0 collision course with Missouri in the Big 12 championship.

Bust Out. That is, unless they look at the recent record in “routine” games, which shows a pattern of bizarre letdowns: OU has lost four games in three years it was favored to win by at least a touchdown (to TCU in 2005, Boise in ‘06, Colorado and Texas Tech last year), after inadvertently launching Les Miles’ career by inexplicably losing to Oklahoma State in 2001 and 2002; the Sooners also lost to the ‘02 edition of Texas A&M that ultimately got R.C. Slocum fired, and there was the hapless blowout at the hands of Kansas State after an undefeated regular season in 2003. 

Most of those losses had one thing in common: a breakdown by the Sooner defense, and the secondary, specifically:

OU Defense in Upset Losses Under Stoops
Year Team Pts. Allowed Pass Yards Pass TD
2001 Oklahoma State 16 258 1
2002 Texas A&M 30 219 4
2002 Oklahoma State 38 357 4
2003 Kansas State 35 227 4
2005 TCU 17 226 1
2006 Boise State 43 267 4
2007 Colorado 27 220 2
2007 Texas Tech 34 420 2
2007 West Virginia 48 176 2

Outmanned Oklahoma State in 2001 and TCU in ‘05 won what you’d call defensive games; Kansas State in ‘03 and West Virginia last year, obviously, did much more damage running at will against a supposedly overpowering front seven (ditto Colorado last year, to a much lesser extent, yardage-wise, but CU’s running game helped it dominate time of possession). The point here is that the defense has had semi-regular breakdowns since 2002, about two or three per season on average, and there’s no real pattern for when that might happen; they’ve found themselves susceptible to long bombs (OSU, A&M) and jitterbugs out of the backfield (K-State, WVU) alike. Lift the upset restriction, and you can add the breakdowns against USC in the ‘05 Orange Bowl rout (those Trojans were awesome, yes, but 55 points?) and against Oregon in the ‘06 screwjob game in Eugene, a game OU lost despite a +3 turnover margin because it couldn’t cover anybody. 

None of which is a very comforting precedent for moving three new starters into the secondary – two new linebackers, too. With a schedule likely to provide only one marquee pelt to hang on the wall (two at most, depending on wildcards Kansas and Texas Tech), all it takes is one mistake to kill the campaign.

Winning the Little One(s). All are valid criticisms to date, but you’re treading on very loose ground in any attempt to transfer psychological ephemera like “inconsistent” or “can’t win the big one” or “always loses one they shouldn’t” across several years, as something that somehow defines an otherwise outstanding coach and program that has, in fact, proven consistent enough to run the table against big ones and little ones alike in the past. The focus should be on more practical concerns: there are legitimate questions about Bradford’s competence under pressure when the running game isn’t humming and lightning bolt Murray’s ability as an every-down back to keep it humming, and nobody is nonchalant about noobs in the secondary (ask Florida).  

Take this schedule, though, and it’s the most favorable of any of the major candidates’ to surviving the regular season without a scratch, a trick Stoops has pulled off three times already in eight years with less stacked offenses. My instincts, as well as the early returns, say none of the mainstream polls – even the ones that don’t count in the BCS, or summer magazines and the like – will be willing to pull the trigger on Oklahoma after the way things went down in the Fiesta Bowl, and maybe even because of the growing reputation of late-season egg-laying. But whoever they do put there, it won’t be a much better candidate than OU to actually finish on top.