NORMAN, Okla. — OK, so there’s no national title or Big 12 title or even a BCS game this year.
But man, Oklahoma got a huge break when it found out Texas A&M is next on the schedule.
Uh, huh. A break. Good fortune. The Jan. 4 AT&T Cotton Bowl on FOX is the best possible situation for the Sooners, and outside of playing for the national championship – and that pretty much has been out of reach since a September loss to Kansas State – a trip to Dallas is a serendipitous opportunity to save a season many considered has been lost.
Because Johnny Manziel is a pretty great parting gift.
A year ago, the Sooners turned Baylor’s Robert Griffin III into a Heisman winner when the star quarterback threw for 479 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in the 45-38 win. This time, Oklahoma doesn’t face a Heisman candidate, it gets the Heisman winner, and an absolute golden ticket for redemption.
OU gets a chance to face off against the nation’s best player and the nation’s hottest team is a parlay no other team gets to play. And a chance to beat the Heisman winner and the Crimson Tide slayers would elevate the Sooners higher than playing and beating some other team in another bowl.
And that’s the next best thing to getting a shot at the national title.
Already this season, the Sooners have seen and lost to the other pair of Heisman finalists, falling at home to both Kansas State and Notre Dame. Undefeated Notre Dame will play in the BCS Championship Game while Kansas State is playing in the high-profile Fiesta Bowl and is the Big 12 champion, but neither LB Manti Te’o or QB Collin Klein has the game or the name Johnny Football has. Manziel, the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, has been court-side in high-profile in NBA seats, he’s done the late-night, talk-show circuit. He’s the biggest name in college football.
And that’s a pretty good break for the Sooners.
“All they talk about is Johnny Football,” defensive end David King said. “You do get tired watching it. And the national media is scrutinizing our defense saying we can’t stop the run. We’ll be ready on Jan. 4.”
That’s the opportunity ahead. Either this Sooners defense – spotty at best this season – gets exposed by the flamboyant Manziel and shows the scrutiny was justified, or this Sooner defense legitimizes itself in the second coming of defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.
“It would show how our defense is,” said safety Tony Jefferson. “They have the Heisman winner. They beat Alabama, so you get a chance to potentially beat them.”
Yeah, about that. While it’s an amazing opportunity for the Sooners, it’s just that. An opportunity, as there have been plenty of teams who haven’t solved Manziel this season. The freshman was third in the Southeastern Conference in passing, throwing for 3,419 yards and led the league in scoring, accounting for 43 touchdowns.
Just because you can’t stop Manziel doesn’t mean you’re deficient defensively, but somehow, if the Sooners can rally and figure him out, it would be enough for people to take notice. Only two teams have held Texas A&M – the SEC’s top-ranked passing, second-ranked rushing and top-overall offense – to less than 20 points. A&M lost both of those games, falling to Florida and LSU.
But the Aggies beat everyone else.
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma defense was miserable against West Virginia and Oklahoma State as the offense bailed them out with fourth-quarter comebacks. Against TCU, the Sooners were better in the 24-17 victory, but it’s been the offense, not the defense that has been more consistent this season.
The Texas A&M offense is third in the nation in scoring, getting 44.8 points trailing only Louisiana Tech and Oregon. But stop the offense, and that means stopping Manziel, and the Aggies are just 1-4, dating back to two seasons before Manziel even arrived, when they score 20 or fewer points.
“I feel we are a potentially good defense,” Jefferson said, “Just sometimes inconsistent. If we go out there and play our game and play how we know we can, we’ll be fine.”
Fine may not get it done against Manziel. So, he was 1-2 against the elite of the SEC. It was still good enough to get him the Heisman and to capture just about everyone’s attention, whether it was from his legs, his arm or his nickname. And now a chance to play against a Sooner defense that has allowed three scoring plays of 70 or more yards in the past three games, certainly should look appetizing for Manziel.
“He looks like a kid playing tag in the backyard and he’s never been, ‘It,”’ said OU assistant coach Bobby Jack Wright. “And he looks like he’s having a blast doing it. He can break your heart with the arm or the legs. It wasn’t an accident he won the Heisman. An incredible year and he has the numbers to back it up.”
And those numbers, that nickname and all the drama is the perfect setup for the Sooners. It’s a one-game test that will answer the question on whether this Sooners defense is good or not and help solidify whether Manziel is a deserving winner.
“Anytime you can knock off the Heisman winner, it legitimizes your defense,” defensive end R.J. Washington said. “If we can come out with a great defensive performance, it will show what kind of defense we really are.”
And if they don’t solve Manziel? Well, instead of legitimizing its defense, it would solidify Manziel as the rightful winner of the Heisman in a season where many thought it should have gone to Te’o.
“We have to have our best game of the season by far,” King said.
Do that and the Sooners season is successful. Allow a highlight day from Manziel, and not only will Oklahoma lose but it will only further enhance his legend.