Like most Sooner fans, I had arrived in the Big Easy hoping that Oklahoma's collapse in the Big 12 Championship versus Kansas State was an aberration, the product of an injured quarterback and overconfident team. Yet, while the vast majority of the Sooner brethren were predicting an eighth national championship and monster statement game from Heisman winner Jason White and the OU Big Red Machine, Homerism had an uneasy feeling that somehow Big Game Bob Stoops' karma had taken a nasty turn at Arrowhead Stadium. Drawing LSU in its backyard for the title game only added to the disappointing sense of destiny surrounding the game.
In the first minute of the second half, LSU defensive end Marcus Spears barreled his way into the OU end zone after picking off one of the worst throws of White's career. Down 21-7 in easily the most raucous atmosphere of the BCS era, I turned to an equally dejected Skinny and said what we were both thinking: "We're (in big trouble)."
One of the few LSU fans in the stadium who had yet to start throwing up on his shoes happened to be sitting next to us. He turned to me with an incredulous look on his face. "You really think a coach as good as Bob Stoops isn't going to make this a game?," he asked with complete sincerity.
He was right. Despite the re-written history that OU got run out of the building that night, the Sooners buckled down and clawed back to within a touchdown of the Tigers. With just under three minutes to play, White overshot running back Kejuan Jones on fourth down from the LSU 13-yard line. That was that--21-14, LSU.
The coincidences between that game and this season's Big 12-SEC clash for all the marbles are downright eerie. OU has a Heisman-winning quarterback leading a prodigious offense. Both teams suffered disappointing losses during the regular season, calling their place in the title game into question. Florida and the Sooners are squaring off in Gator country.
Will this time around end any better for OU? Let's take a look.
Oklahoma Offense vs. Florida Defense
Looking back at OU's recent BCS debacles, there's a common factor in each: the Sooners have been whipped in the trenches, especially on offense.
USC's front four harrassed White into throwing three interceptions, as the Trojans linebackers and defensive backs were able to back off from blitzing and concentrate on covering the pass. In the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, Boise State's supposedly undermanned defensive line pushed OU's o-line around all game long, bottling up the OU run game and pressuring quarterback Paul Thompson into three picks. Last year, West Virginia's unconventional three-man front combined with opportunistic blitzes to put quarterback Sam Bradford on his back frequently keep the Sooners' high-powered offense in check.
This year, Texas did the best job of getting to Bradford, producing the Sooners' only loss while holding them to their lowest point output of the year, 35.
Enter Florida, a team that last won the national championship in 2006-'07 on the strength of a dominating performance by pass rushers Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey against Ohio State and its own Heisman winner, QB Troy Smith. Like this year's version, that Florida team only averaged approximately 2.5 sacks per game. However, if speed rushers Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham can turn it up a notch on Thursday and consistently beat OU's vaunted offensive line, Bradford will learn what Smith's final game as a Buckeye felt like.
Bradford has more than highly touted blockers on his side. The Sooners' well publicized transition to an uptempo, no-huddle offensive scheme has helped OU get a jump on defenses all season. The no-huddle offense enables OU to put opposing defenses on their heels, creating confusion and preventing substitutions and adjustments before the snap. It's a wide-open style that the Gators have seen little to none of this year, and even Florida's unconventional preparation efforts probably can't match the speed and--more importantly--the precision with which Bradford and the Sooner O operate.
Florida Offense vs. Oklahoma Defense
Florida has great size, Florida has great speed and Florida has great athleticism on the offensive side of the ball. Oh yeah, they also have a near-deity behind center who already boasts a Heisman Trophy and a national championship ring.
Want to know the key to Florida's offense in Homerism's opinion, though? First down. The Gators average an astonishing 8.1 yards per play on first down. Compare that with Oklahoma's ballyhooed offense, which generates 6.6 yards. As the old football adage goes, second and short opens up the entire playbook for a play caller. And when you have a battering ram like Tim Tebow as your de facto short-yardage option, converting third and two looks more than manageable.
Consequently, how OU handles first down will go a long way to determining whether or not the Sooners can contain Florida. Allowing two or three yards on first, as opposed to seven or eight, will leave the Gators in more difficult second- and third-down conversion situations. Sounds obvious, but it's key. In the Gator's loss to Ole Miss, for example, Florida converted just one out of 11 third-down attempts while the Rebels consistently forced negative plays or allowed short gains on first.
Back to Florida's speed and athleticism for a second. If I'm a Sooner fan, I'm also pretty concerned about the Sooners' consistently poor tackling. OU defenders do a great job of blowing up screen passes, but that seems to be about it. When opponents are able to get the ball to playmakers in space or hit receivers on the run, watch out.
If you've watched either of these teams at all this year, you know that this barely warrants discussion. Florida has some of the best special teams play in the country; OU's is some of the worst. To be fair, OU's punt team has performed solidly this year. The kickoff team, however, is a different story. I'd almost encourage the Sooners to just kick it out of bounds on every kickoff and concede the penalty. Field goals also have been an adventure for OU.
Intangibles and Somewhat Tangibles
*Crowd: OU fans typically travel fairly well, but I'd expect Gator nation to outnumber Oklahomans roughly two to one inside Dolphins Stadium.
*Turnovers: As discussed previously, both of these teams thrive on creating turnovers. Neither are prone to giving the ball away, either. They're the two best in the country in terms of turnover margin on a per-game basis. If one team wins the turnover battle, that likely will be the game's winner.
*"Disrespect": This one looks like a push. Tim Tebow may be upset about the Heisman snub, and his teammates are hacked off about the Sooners not treating him with the proper reverence. OU's defense is tired of being a media whipping boy.
*Vegas: The point spread on this game has moved from OU as a three-point underdog to the Sooners getting five points, coming on the heels of the Big 12's lackluster bowl season. The betting public are backing Florida 58 percent to 42 percent in terms of number of bets placed, according to wagerline.com.
*Coaching: While Florida coach Urban Meyer may aspire to even greater heights, on Thursday night he could be looking at a version of himself six years from now across the sideline.
Both Meyer and Stoops inherited floundering superpowers and enjoyed immediate success, winning national championships in their second seasons. Both proved they weren't a flash in the pan by continuing to win lots of games and conference titles in the years following their titles. Both continued to lure top talent to their teams as well.
But what an amazing amount of big game baggage Bob Stoops has amassed in the six years separating the two coaches. His teams have still won plenty of games and conference titles. But he appears to have lost his edge over uber-rival Texas as of late, and his teams have suffered shocking embarrassments in recent postseasons. The reality is that Stoops remains in the upper-est echelon of coaches and is as consistent of a winner as you'll find in college football. After 10 years in Norman, however, Stoops ceded his mantle as the new hotness long ago, as much a victim of his own success as anything else.
Meyer, on the other hand, still maintains the wunderkind persona that followed him from Bowling Green to Utah to Florida. Now appearing in his second national championship game, Meyer has given us no reason to doubt him on the big stage. Yet. Until his legend actually takes a hit like the ones Stoops has sustained, Florida has the coaching edge.
The OU fan in Homerism would love to get on here and tell all of my loyal readers about how confident I am that the Sooners will roll over the Gators. However, as disappointing as that night in New Orleans was for Homerism and OU fans everywhere, what does it say when I think I'd be happy just making this game as competitive as that Sugar Bowl loss? Such is the fragile collective psyche of Stoops' Troops, whether they will admit it or not.
The most disappointing part of OU's recent BCS struggles has to be the apparent lack of heart and tendency to fold in the face of adversity. Why should we think this team is any different? The way Texas reached out and basically took a Red River Shootout win from the Sooners in October has left me fearing the worst.
But this team is different. Florida has a God-fearing, larger-than-life, Heisman-winning missionary at quarterback. But OU has its own too-good-to-be-true Heisman winner under center, and he has run OU's show to perfection this year. And OU has guys like four-year starter Jon Cooper on the offensive line. And veteran wide receivers who seem to have been catching passes for the Sooners since Eric Moore was at quarterback. And defenders like Nic Harris, who has been a fixture on the field since the Sooners got screwed at Autzen.
And OU has a bull-headed coach who knows that, fair or not, this game may define his legacy. You really think a coach as good as Bob Stoops isn't going to make this a game?
Sooners 39, Gators 31.