I can’t say I’ve ever heard Bob Stoops talk about his team being “a year away” or use youth to manage expectations for a season. However, if ever there was a clear bridge year for Oklahoma under Stoops, 2013 was it.
Before the season even started, Sooners tweaked the offense to suit quarterbacks who don’t run like this, and Bob and Mike Stoops completely ditched their tried-and-true defensive scheme. Kenny Stills, Tony Jefferson and other veteran contributors departed, leaving a behind a roster that was one of the more inexperienced in the country. A quarterback derby that was thought to be over before it started didn’t really end until the final game of the season. The coaching staff churned through three new additions.
Looking through that lens, last season actually went pretty well. Veteran squads at Texas and Baylor putting serious stompings on their longtime nemesis, but OU still ended the year on a major roll. Taken as a whole, the season set a solid foundation for 2014.
That also lends a sense of urgency to the upcoming season. It really doesn’t set up much better for a big year: manageable schedule, strong in the trenches, solid quarterback situation. Even the special teams units look reliable.
Of course, we’ve said the same things about some of Stoops’ teams that have come up short in the recent past. What would make this team any different?
You could fall back on some trope such as leadership or that ineffable ability to “find a way to win.” Those kinds of crutches offer easy outs for sportswriters trying to explain how a team wins games in the fashion that OU did last year (Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech).
Reality isn’t so magical: OU finally has confidence in its running game.
The Sooners’ high-octane passing attack put plenty of points on the scoreboard. They won lots of games relying on the right arm of Landry Jones and an arsenal of talented receivers. However, by the end of that run in 2012, the Sooners’ tendency to pass first and ask questions later had turned OU into a one-trick offense. That approach generally paid off handsomely, but the Sooners usually got a couple painful reminders every year about the high-wire act that was their offense. Good defenses learned to sit back to prevent big passing plays. Between stalling in the red zone, struggling in short-yardage situations and an inability to take advantage when opponents dared the Sooners to run, OU just had to wing it.
The decision to involve the QB in the running game last season, paired with the absence of an Air Raid-ready thrower, forced OU to rededicate to the ground game. Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel tailored his scheme to match Trevor Knight’s strengths, while new line coach Bill Bedenbaugh gave his unit a dose of nasty. It looked rough at times, but OU won 11 games last year largely by leaning on the legs of Knight, Brennan Clay, Damien Williams, Roy Finch and Blake Bell. Whereas the Sooners ran the ball on 43 percent of their offensive plays in ‘12, they were carrying it on the ground 60 percent of the time last year.
This year, OU will add more of a power element to complement the option that worked so well last year with Knight. Bigger tailbacks such as Keith Ford, Alex Ross and Samaje Perine will run behind beefy fullbacks Aaron Ripkowski and Dmitri Flowers. The tight end may even have a place in this offense.
Despite all of the noise going on around the program right now, there’s a ton to like about this team. The defense has more depth, more versatility and more familiarity with its new scheme. With or without Dorial Green-Beckham split out wide, the offense has an abundance of weapons at the disposal of a budding star behind center. Most importantly, so long as Heupel remains committed to pounding the rock, the O can tax defenses in a variety of ways.
Under Bob Stoops, the Sooners have shown a tendency to drop at least one game that they shouldn’t just about every year. However, the ability to control possession behind the ground game lessens the likelihood of anything-can-happen shootouts. It also raises the chances that OU’s physical superiority on both lines will overwhelm less-talented teams. This looks like the year when the Sooners finally avoid the landmines.
Official prediction: 12-0 regular season; Big 12 champs; loss in playoff semifinal to Alabama.