Uncertainty and perhaps uneasiness shroud the Oklahoma Sooners for the 228 days separating them from their next game. Between now and Aug. 31, when OU hosts Louisiana-Monroe, head coach Bob Stoops faces substantial challenges if he’s to prove his vocal critics wrong.
Oklahoma football has had the kind of success in Stoops’ 14 seasons as head coach the majority of athletic programs desperately chase with outlandish coaching contracts and renovated facilities. Stoops has been the picture of consistency since resuscitating the once-suffering powerhouse, amassing a 149-36 record with eight Big 12 Conference championships and one BCS title.
Yet, even consistent relationships are susceptible to a seven-year itch — and Stoops has been in Norman twice that long.
Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel brilliantly captured the tension permeating between the Sooner fan base and Stoops. The coach tried assuaging some of the criticisms in the wake of a season-ending loss with facts.
“Let’s see here,” Stoops said. “We’ve won two of the last three Big 12 championships. We just were 15th in the country. We’ve won more games overall than any other Big 12 team in the last three years. We’ve won more Big 12 games than any other team in the last three years.”
True as that maybe, the point Tramel makes is that OU seems to be inching away from national title contention. Stoops set a high bar for himself when he claimed the crystal ball — the Coaches Trophy — in just his second season. Expectations were set then, and Stoops has yet to meet them. Forget only eight other coaches among the many who have manned Division I sidelines since have achieved that level of success; the standard by which Stoops would be measured was set then.
The Sooners begin a long off-season with the fresh, bitter taste of a 41-13 blowout loss to former Big 12 rival Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Losing in a rout is tough to swallow; losing in a rout because of halftime adjustments is worse.
The Aggies outscored OU 27-0 in the second half, flambeing the typically stout Sooner defense with a pair of rushing touchdowns and two, long passing strikes from Heisman winning quarterback Johnny Manziel.
“No, we didn’t change,” Stoops told reporters in his postgame press conference. “We continued to play the same defense [in the second half as in the first]. We didn’t feel we needed to change that much. We were doing some decent things.
“[Texas A&M was] running the same defenses we had seen in the first half. They executed them and outplayed us,” he added. “They executed them in the second half better than we executed our offense.”
Naysayers who criticize Stoops’ ability to win the big stage games have ammunition with his former assistant, Kevin Sumlin, cruising past OU in such dominant fashion and Stoops admitting his team was outperformed.
Yes, OU went 10-3 in 2012, making it the 11th season the Sooners reached double digits in the win column since Stoops’ arrival in 1999. But at No. 15 in the final Associated Press poll, OU was 11 slots off its preseason designation.
Moreover, the three contests the Sooners lost were their three most profile games of the season: vs. Big 12 champion Kansas State, national championship game participant Notre Dame and the Cotton Bowl. Since losing a one-sided Big 12 title game to K-State in 2003, the tide turned for OU in a way Stoops has been unsuccessful in reversing. The “Big Game Bob” moniker is now only invoked sardonically.
Did I mention Oklahoma’s off-season has started off bitter? Emphasis there, because the impact of losing such a one-sided contest deepened last week. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops offered some comments on Manziel that spoke volumes in their ambiguity.
“If they can keep him out of jail or keep him eligible, he’s gonna be pretty good. If they can keep him off the Twitter, he might win three or four Heismans,” Mike Stoops said during a radio interview. The allusions to Manziel’s arrest last summer and an Instagram photo from a casino don’t take a long logical leap to reach, and had some crying foul.
Mike since expressed regret about his insinuations. Retractions never garner the same attention as the initial slight, unfortunately, and his comments cast a negative pall over the Sooner off-season.
Consistency as the program’s hallmark makes the coming months particularly fascinating. Oklahoma’s misfires were easily reset with loaded rosters en tow and the promise of another team capable of winning it all. The 2013 Sooners won’t be lacking in talent, but plenty of change is coming to Norman.
Mike Stoops has plenty he’ll need to adjust on the field. Though OU spent the season’s first half ranked among the nation’s top defenses, the Sooners surrendered 34, 49, 48 and 41 points in four of the final five games. His unit suffers significant losses to early departure, as both safety Tony Jefferson and linebacker Tom Wort are pursuing the NFL dream.
For as much criticism as he sustained, Landry Jones was a four-year starting quarterback. Complaints about Jones’ career serve as a microcosm for the OU program under Stoops. He was good — great, at times — but not at the game’s zenith. Replacing his production is no easy feat. Blake Bell has taken meaningful snaps in his two years donning crimson-and-cream, but primarily in situational formations.
The last time OU failed to reach 10 wins was its last with a first-year starting quarterback. That was 2009, when Jones was prematurely thrust into the role, the result of reigning Heisman winner Sam Bradford injuring his shoulder in Week 1. The only other season a Stoops-coached Sooner team won single digits since the turn of the millennium was 2005 — a first-year starter, Rhett Bomar, was manning the position then.
Blake Bell won’t be lacking in experience when 2013 kicks off. The Belldozer has played meaningful snaps in his tenure wearing crimson-and-cream, though primarily in situational packages. Bell has yet to demonstrate the ability to run an effective, Big 12 offense for the duration of a game. Might offensive coordinator Josh Heupel flirt with adding zone-read elements to the Sooners’ spread formation?
Such a shift would be a dramatic departure from the vertical, spread system run under past Oklahoma coordinators Kevin Wilson and Sumlin, though it could better showcase the abilities of running back Damien Williams. His emergence answered a burning question about the Sooner running game in 2012. Perhaps in 2013, he could solve the overall conundrum of how OU’s offense will function.
Kenny Stills is gone for the NFL, but Fresno State transfer Jalen Saunders offers an intriguing option in the passing game. Bell-Tim Tebow comparisons have been made in the past; if that’s the case, consider Saunders the Percy Harvin doppelganger.
Oklahoma should be at the forefront of Big 12 championship conversation. The conference itself is in a state of flux, with reigning champion K-State losing Heisman finalist Collin Klein, Oklahoma State facing a quarterback controversy, West Virginia losing big names after an already disappointing season and red-hot Baylor with major defensive issues.
The BCS championship caliber team Sooner fans so long for is much less of a certainty. Stoops has his opportunity to regain some of that missing big game magic in 256 days when Oklahoma travels to Notre Dame. The national runner-up Fighting Irish should be improved from the version that dispatched OU, 30-13, last October.