Preseason countdown: No. 2 Oklahoma
Alright, so what’s missing? Why can’t Oklahoma win the national championship?
Without any question, over the last decade, this is one of the premier programs in college football and has to be in any discussion of the elite with nine double-digit wins seasons since 2000, seven Big 12 titles, a second-place finish, and four national championship appearances. However, the one BCS title came 11 years ago.
Just when it seems like OU is ready to make a big move, it goes on the road and steps into a buzzsaw. The team didn’t play poorly in losses to good Missouri and Texas A&M teams last year, but it didn’t have the national title-killer ability to fight through the close games and the adversity. In 2011, though, the experience is in place, the explosion is there, and the expectations are reasonably high that yes, this is OU’s turn for the BCS Championship Game wheel to stop on Crimson & Cream.
The talent is there year after year after year with Bob Stoops and his coaching staff always loading up on big-time recruits, and the wins keep flowing, especially at home. OU’s last loss inside the state of Oklahoma, including games against Tulsa and Oklahoma State, came against TCU in the opener of the 2005 season, and before that, the previous defeat was at Oklahoma State in 2002. Since that breakthrough 2000 national championship season, the Sooners, over the last 11 years, have gone 75-3 when playing in the state of Oklahoma.
But time after time there seems to be one hiccup or one fatal flaw that keeps the Sooners from winning the whole ball of wax. For a program that has been so close for so long, eventually the breaks should go its way and another national title will finally come Stoops’ way if there isn’t a rash of injuries and if there aren’t any major surprises.
And this might be that year, with Oklahoma picking up the top spot in both the AP and Coaches' preseason polls.
Starting with the schedule and that 75-3 mark going back to 2000, OU plays five games outside of state borders. At Florida State is the bear of the bunch, but that comes in mid-September meaning a close loss might be acceptable if the Sooners run the table. Texas is still trying to find itself, Kansas isn’t up to snuff, Kansas State isn’t anything great, and Baylor is still Baylor. That’s it for the road games outside of Oklahoma, with the Oklahoma State game in Stillwater, so in other words, at least if recent history is a guide, if the 'Noles don’t get the job done the Sooners will likely have to be upset at home by a Texas A&M or Missouri to be derailed on the way to New Orleans.
But OU always has a decent slate that falls in its favor when it comes to home games. The difference this year is that the offensive talent should be so good that the Sooners can just outbomb everyone to make the run needed to get to 12-0, or 11-1 at worst, and make a national title a real possibility.
The offense has a rising star quarterback in Landry Jones, with two years of experience and first-round NFL talent to get one of the nation’s top passing offenses moving, and the return of superstar receiver Ryan Broyles is a cherry on top of an already great receiving corps. Throw in four returning starters on the offensive front, a loaded backfield of high school superstars, some of the best special teams in the country, and a defense with just enough athleticism and speed all across the board to hold its own, and this might be the No. 1 team in America to start the season.
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But with all the excitement and talk that this really might be the year when OU becomes one of the main players in the national title chase again, everything took a left turn after the sad and sudden death of projected starting middle linebacker, Austin Box.
And then, the Sooners were dealt another blow with the loss of another linebacker, Travis Lewis, for eight weeks because of a left foot injury.
That missing ingredient from Oklahoma has been consistency. From the inexplicable blowout loss to Kansas State in the 2003 Big 12 Championship Game, to not showing up in the 2005 Orange Bowl loss to USC, to struggling out of the gate year at Missouri and against a hot Texas A&M team, for whatever reason the team seems to have a hard time always playing up to its talent level each and every week. Getting the job done on the road in a business-like manner changes with experience, and this team will have it.
Oklahoma, it’s time to win another one in the Bob Stoops era. There’s no Nebraska to deal with, there’s no Big 12 title game, and Texas is down.
It’s all there to win a title, and now it’s time to get it done.
What to watch for on offense: The maturation of Landry Jones. He has thrown too many picks and he hasn’t been quite as effective as he needed to be in a few key games, but Jones has also proven to be calm, steady, and very good. This might be the year junior quarterback steps out of the shadow of Sam Bradford and becomes a special, Heisman-caliber playmaker who spreads the ball around well enough to get the high-octane, up-tempo offense going even faster and more effectively. With a veteran line that’ll keep him clean, and with Ryan Broyles leading a loaded receiving corps, Jones should go ballistic. Can he be 2008 Bradford? That might be a stretch, but he might do something Bradford couldn’t and win a national title.
What to watch for on defense: The lightning fast linebacking corps. From a straight football standpoint, the tragic death of Austin Box hurts, but there’s more than enough talent and athleticism to make linebacker a strength. Travis Lewis is a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year type of playmaker, even though he'll miss two months after getting hurt, Tom Wort is a sound veteran who can step in and shine in the middle, and Corey Nelson had a tremendous offseason and is bursting to become a major factor. Even when OU goes to five defensive backs, Tony Jefferson is like a really fast outside linebacker. The front four will get the job done when it comes to getting into the backfield, and the linebacking corps will be turned loose to wreak havoc, even without Box as a leader for the inside.
The team will be far better if: Jones doesn’t throw a lot of interceptions. He gave away 12 last year. Two came against Utah State in what was a way-too-close nailbiter against a ridiculously overmatched team. Two came in the loss to Missouri, there was a pick against Texas A&M, and three came against Oklahoma State in a six-point win. In the six games Jones didn’t throw an interception, OU went 6-0 and won by a total score of 197-78. In the eight games when Jones threw an interception, OU outscored its opponents by a total score of 279-227. OU is more than good enough to overcome a mistake here or there, but watch to see if the offense is crisper and more productive when Jones goes error-free.
Check out SoonersIllustrated.com's take on Oklahoma's upcoming season.
The schedule: It’s a national title type of schedule as long as the Sooners can take care of business in the three big games away from Norman against Florida State, Texas, and Oklahoma State. The opener against Tulsa will be a nice test for the defense with the showdown at Florida State looming two weeks later. Getting Missouri, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M at home is a huge break considering they are three of the league’s six best teams, and, of course, the Texas game is a neutral site date at Dallas. Considering the problems over the years once the team leaves the state of Oklahoma, there are only four games outside of the borders. If OU has any dreams of going to New Orleans on Jan. 9, it needs to easily win road dates at Kansas and Baylor and has to put away Kansas State. It could all come down to the Bedlam date at Oklahoma State to close out the regular season.
Best offensive player: Senior WR Broyles. Jones could turn out to get the Heisman hype, but Broyles will likely finish his career as the greatest wide receiver in school history. All he has done in his three years is catch 266 passes for 3,429 yards and 35 touchdowns, while running for 94 yards and a score and scoring twice on his 89 punt returns. Ultra-reliable and always open, he’s a big play waiting to happen time and again with six double-digit catch games last season and finishing up with an unstoppable 13-catch, 170-yard, one score day against UConn in the Fiesta Bowl.
Best defensive player: Senior LB Lewis. Even though he's hurt, he's expected to be back by late October in time for the stretch run — and the Sooners will need him. The stats are starting to pile up in his special career with 362 career tackles, eight interceptions, ten broken up passes, and 38 tackles for loss and six sacks. At 6-2 and 233 pounds he has decent size, unlimited range, and the hitting ability come up with every big play needed when the line isn’t getting the job done against the run — over the final third of the season.
Key player to a successful season: Redshirt freshman OT Daryl Williams. Four starters are back on the offensive line, but the big gaping hole is at right tackle where projected starter Jarvis Jones, a former LSU Tiger, suffered a knee injury this spring and is questionable for the start of the season. It’s possible that defensive end Lane Johnson takes over the job, but if the 6-4, 304-pound Williams can hold down the job and produce on a consistent basis, Jones will get a lot more time to work.
The season will be a success if: Oklahoma plays for the national championship. It’s not fair to demand anyone to win the national title, but at certain schools, the year is a major disappointment, and can almost be called a failure, without a date in the final college football game of the season. This is the best team in the Big 12 and it should be favored in every conference game.
Key game: Sept. 17 at Florida State. The Sooners spanked the Seminoles in a shockingly easy 47-17 win last year, but this year, FSU will be looking to make a program-changing statement and get into the national title chase with a big win over a top-ranked OU team. If Oklahoma can survive this, and it gets a week off to prepare, and can load up to beat Missouri at home in the Big 12 opener, this will be one confident and cocky team with the Texas game coming up on Oct. 8.