With fall camp around the corner, the preview season continues today with a look at OU, who sucks, but has won the last two Red River Shootouts. This year's battle in the Cotton Bowl will take place on Saturday, October 13th.
2011: 10-3 (6-3 Big 12), No. 16 AP Final Ranking
Overview: Whatever else you might say about Oklahoma -- all of it undoubtedly true -- the uncomfortable fact of the matter is that on the field, they're beating us right now. However understandable last year's 55-14 thrashing may have been given our quarterback situation, it was the second win in a row for the Sooners and -- here's the important part -- OU has now 8 of the last 12 Red River Shootouts by a combined score of 355-201, or roughly 30-17. And although they've only cashed in for one national title (same as UT), Bob Stoops has 7 Big 12 titles, to just 2 for Mack Brown.
The nature of college football with its roster turnover and what not makes it such that a loss in any given year may be nothing to get worked up about, but as that sample size increases, the overall record starts to become increasingly meaningful. As he enters the twilight of his career, Mack Brown had better start turning it around against OU if he's to avoid having what for UT fans is a sizable stain on his legacy.
With Landry Jones back for his senior season at quarterback and Mike Stoops returning to the sidelines to coach the defense, it won't be easy to knock off the pre-season No. 4 team, but a win this year could send the pendulum swinging the other way, as Texas looks likely to be the team with the roster advantage each of the next two years.
In this series, they're all important, but this is a big one for both teams.
Key Losses: LT Donald Stephenson, C Ben Habern, WR Ryan Broyles, TE James Hannah, WR Dejuan Miller, DE Frank Alexander, DE Ronnell Lewis, LB Travis Lewis, CB Jamell Fleming.
Offensive Personnel: The Sooners will once again feature an experienced and often explosive offense, coupled with what should be a stronger defense. If Texas is to compete with Oklahoma this time around, it will have to be because the Longhorns elevate their level of play, because the Sooners again look likely to be capable of throttling teams that show signs of weakness.
Offensively, it's once again all about Landry Jones, who declined early entry to the NFL Draft to return for his senior season. Everything that gets said about Landry Jones -- even the stuff that is contradictory? -- all of it's true.
Landry Jones is like an enigmatic baseball pitcher with electric stuff, but inconsistent, sometimes wild, command --the kind of pitcher whose no-hitter comes with six walks, and who after being untouchable against the Yankees one week, can't get an out against the Royals the next. That's Landry Jones. He is talented. He can absolutely light up a defense. He is inconsistent. Occasionally, the wheels come off, and he looks dreadful.
Of course, the only thing Texas fans care about is how well he plays in the Cotton Bowl against UT, and after getting whipped as a true freshman, Jones has been nails in the two games since, torching the Longhorns for more than 600 yards and 5 touchdowns, without a single interception.
There are no concerns for OU where its quarterback is concerned, but heading into fall camp the situation at receiver is alarming. The Sooners knew how much it was going to hurt to lose Ryan Broyles -- and to a lesser extent, Dejuan Miller, along with tight ends James Hanna and Trent Ratterree -- but the deep stable of pass catchers that were expected to help make up for it suddenly disappeared in early May, when three OU receivers -- Trey Franks, Kameel Jackson, and Jaz Reynolds -- as well as safety Quentin Hayes, were suspended indefinitely for violating team rules, and then one month later, "removed from their scholarships," to use Bob Stoops' words.
As of now, it remains unclear whether or how much they will play, but Stoops recently reinstated Franks, Reynolds, and Hayes (Jackson is gone for good), hedging that they will all be suspended for "multiple, multiple games," which probably means "until it's time to play Texas." If they were not to play, however, all that's left of Oklahoma's receiving corps are junior Kenny Stills and a group of true freshmen headlined by Trey Metoyer. Which is why it was such a big deal that OU landed Penn State transfer Justin Brown, a big-bodied senior who immediately helps both as a receiver and an experienced and explosive return man.
If this is the year that something goes wrong with the passing game that has carried the Sooners offense the last several years, Oklahoma badly needs this to be the year that everything gets sorted out on the offensive line. After three years of problems caused by uneven recruiting and injuries, OU looked well-positioned to do just that, heading into 2012 only needing to replace Donald Stephenson at left tackle. But the depth chart took a blow last week when injuries forced pre-season All-Big 12 center Ben Habern to retire from football.
In all likelihood, that means Gabe Ikard will slide back over to center (he filled in for an injured Habern as the starter for 7 games last season), meaning Oklahoma will likely have two new starters on the left side of the line, which always makes you nervous. OU fans are nervous about depth, but optimistic that among tackles Lane Johnson and Daryl Williams, and guards Tyler Evans and Adam Shead, the Sooners can still assemble a quality starting five.
Oklahoma is hopeful that improved line play will pave the way for continued improvement in the rushing attack, which, after two abysmal years in which the Sooners averaged just 3.4 yards per carry and scored just 21 rushing touchdowns, rebounded last year to average 4.5 yards per carry, with 30 rushing scores. If fully recovered from his fractured ankle, Dominic Whaley returns as the feature back, while each of Roy Finch (quick and elusive) Brennan Clay (good hands and nice burst), and Damien Williams (dazzled in junior college) bring something unique to the table.
Manny Diaz's Nightmare Fuel: Landry Jones hasn't had an off day against Texas since his freshman season, and last year was just impossibly good with the throws he made to beat the Longhorns. When a quarterback's making throws like that, there's not a whole lot you can do.
Manny Diaz's Aphrodisiac: On the bright side, there are very real questions as to whether Jones will have the receiveing corps to make the plays on the other end of the connection. With the pressure this Texas defense is capable of bringing, Jones is going to have to get rid of the ball early, which makes great receiving play all the more critical.
Defensive Personnel: As for the OU defense, Texas fans are not likely to be pleased by the reunion of Bob Stoops with the architect of OU's best defenses in the early 2000's -- Mike Stoops, who returns for another stint as Sooner defensive coordinator. Despite the loss of several key players like Travis Lewis (finally), Frank Alexander, and Ronnell Lewis, the Sooners return seven starters from a year ago, and should be a formidable unit that benefits from Stoops' return.
The same trio of tackles will form the core of the interior defensive line, as Jamarkus McFarland, Casey Walker, and Stacy McGee all return, joined this year by Jordan Phillips, an outrageously athletic tackle with huge disruptive potential. Any concerns about the line are on the outside, where OU can count on reliably solid play from David King, but needs much more this season from R.J. Washington, while depth will have to come from younger players such as Chuka Ndulue, Geneo Grissom, and Chaz Nelson stepping up.
In the back seven, Tom Wort enters his third year as starting linebacker needing to elevate his game in the wake of Travis Lewis' departure, while Corey Nelson has all the physical tools to be elite, but hasn't quite put it all together mentally yet. Among the remaining linebackers, Jaydan Bird had a strong spring and looks ready to be a consistent contributor, while Frank Shannon and Aaron Franklin have talent and now just need seasoning.
Mike Stoops spent some time reshuffling the Sooners secondary, eventually settling on Joe Ibiloye as his nickelback, liberating Tony Jefferson to lead the defensive backfield as a safety, where it is hoped he will help Javon Harris avoid getting beat deep so often this season. With depth at cornerback hurting OU last year against all the elite passing attacks in the Big 12, Mike Stoops plans to move Aaron Colvin to corner, where paired with Demontre Hurst OU would have one of the top cornerback duos in the conference.
Bryan Harsin's Nightmare Fuel: Oklahoma flooded the box on the edges last season and Texas' offensive line and quarterbacks absolutely drowned, the primary reason the match up proved to be so uneven. There's no telling whether Texas will be successful on offense last year, but if it experiences anything resembling last year's meltdown in blocking assignments and play checks, another nightmare awaits.
Bryan Harsin's Aphrodisiac: The departures of Lewis and Alexander on the line could prove enormously helpful in giving Ash time to execute, while the Sooners aren't the dominant run-stuffing unit they once were. This is a defense that good offenses have been exploiting the past several years.
Special Teams: Most of the key players return for the Sooners this fall, with the big loss being Ryan Broyles returning kicks. Sophomore Michael Hunnicutt proved to be a huge source of relief last season, winning a kicking job that was alarmingly wide open heading into the season. But by October, Hunnicutt had seized the starting job and wound up tying the OU record for field goals in a season with 21 (including a perfect 4-for-4 from beyond 40 yards), the most ever in the Big 12 by a freshman. Senior drama major Tress Way returns as the Sooners punter, where he'll likely again be solid -- not great, not bad. In the return game, Kenny Stills and Roy Finch were the two likeliest candidates to return kicks this fall, but transfer Justin Brown immediately slides in as the top punt returner (36th nationally last year), and is likely to contribute on kickoff returns as well.
Bob Stoops & Friends: Head coach Bob Stoops enters his 14th season at the helm of the program, aided by the return of co-offensive coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell, and reunited with brother Mike Stoops as associate head coach and defensive coordinator. Bob Stoops repulses me, and wouldn't be a good fit in Austin, but there's no denying that he's a tremendous football coach, and the Sooners have themselves a top-shelf staff in 2012.
The Player I Wish Played For Texas: I found Ryan Broyles hard not to like, but now that he's gone... I guess I'll go with Justin Brown, if only because I'm annoyed that he bailed out their desperate situation at wide receiver.
Phun Phact Only Phil Steele Would Know!! Landry Jones enters the 2012 season already having started the most games at quarterback for OU in program history, one of 13 school records that he already owns.
A Random Observation about OU: I've never been to Norman, but as I was reading about its downtown revitalization project, I became curious as to its size relative to Austin, which of course has grown from a quiet university town to a booming city over the last twenty years. Norman is located in Cleveland County, which had a population of 261,281 in 2010. Looking at the historical data for Travis County, Norman appears to be roughly the size of Austin somewhere around 1965. Both cities have been growing rapidly over the last decade, with Austin growing 20.4% between 2000 and 2010, and Norman growing 15.9%. Also of relevance, and I somehow wasn't aware of this until I began researching the metro areas of both cities, Norman is just 15 miles south of Oklahoma City, or roughly the distance between Round Rock and Austin. For the curious: the metro area population for Austin is now 1.8 million; the metro area population for Oklahoma City (includes Norman) is 1.3 million.
A Random Observation about an Unrelated Topic: Not only did NASA's engineers successfully land Curiosity on Mars last night... they came within a mile of their target. Absolutely amazing.
OU Best Case Scenario: The best case scenario is, as it so often has been under Stoops, a national title-contending season. On offense, that likely involves Landry Jones improving his consistency to elevate his game from very good to exceptional, strong contributions from either Justin Brown or Trey Metoyer, some good luck with health along the offensive line, and one of their four running backs step up to deliver consistent production -- whether it's Whaley again, or one of the others. On the other side of the ball, an elite season means finding a playmaker or two at end to help King, a breakout season from Corey Nelson, and substantial improvement at safety in taking away the big plays that killed OU last year.
OU Worst Case Scenario: The worst case scenario is the flipside of all those factors. The Big 12 is going to be a terrirfic offensive conference once again this year, and if the Sooners don't improve on defense and the offense can't win shootouts because the receivers are no good, Jones misses time with injury, and/or the running game regresses to 2009-10 form, OU could find itself with an 8-4 record when it's all said and done. All things considered, when your worst case scenario is 8 wins, you're doing something right.
Degree of Difficulty for Texas (out of 10): 11. No explanation needed here. This is the game of the year, every year, and Texas' young pups never recovered when they got popped in the mouth last year. Reversing that psychological dynamic isn't easy to do, and if OU puts points on the board as they almost always manage to do, this Texas offense hasn't proven it can win a shootout. But hey, no one saw 45-35 coming either.
As they say, "That's why they play the games..." I can't wait.