Friday, September 2, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Oklahoma

The program

The program, indeed. Oklahoma has a strong case as the best program in college football history, though a few other schools do as well. They have been and are, as one Oklahoma sportswriter wrote, "the terror of Middle America" since World War II. Since World War II, the Sooners have the most wins and best winning percentage in Division I college football. Last year they became the eighth program in NCAA history to win 800 games.

Oklahoma holds a massive amount of NCAA records. Under legendary coach Bud Wilkinsson, Oklahoma won 47 straight games. They have been No. 1 in the AP poll and in its top five more than any other school. They have the most 10-win seasons (32) and 11-win seasons (20) and fewest losing seasons of any program (I'm sure there's a minimum number of seasons played here). Oklahoma is the only school with four (!) coaches with 100+ wins (Stoops, Switzer, Wilkinson, Owen). They have seven national titles (all since 1950, no pre-poll titles here), five Heisman Trophy winners and 43 conference titles.

And under Stoops, the Sooners are still rolling, albeit after a serious lull in the 1990s. In 12 years at OU, Stoops is 129-31 overall and 78-18 in Big 12 play (plus 7-1 in Big 12 title games; the "Big Game Bob" moniker still rings true in Big 12 games). The rivalry with Texas? Please. OU has won 7 of the last 9 Big 12 South titles, and six of the past nine Big 12 titles. (Texas has won two of each in that span, respectable, but an obvious second fiddle to OU in Big 12 country.) Stoops and OU have also won seven of 11 against Texas, and will be favored this year. One more: Stoops is 72-2 in Norman, including 36 straight wins.

But even more, Oklahoma simply is college football tradition. It's decades of battles with Nebraska for the Big Eight, including the Game of the Century in Norman. It's that covered wagon barreling around the field and one finger held aloft during their alma mater song and, of course, "Boomer Sooner" over and over and over and over and over. It's Barry Switzer, who could teach all these confused kids today what Swagger really is, sitting with his feet propped up on his desk and smoking a cigar on the Friday before an enormous game. I've read they used to sell shirts with Switzer's face on them reading, "Hang a half a hundred on 'em." It's titles and trophies and getting everyone's best shot and Bedlam Games. It's "No excuses, win the Big 12." In short, it's always a big game when you play the Sooners.

Best player ever

Billy Sims, RB
Just an avalanche of candidates here, from crushing defensive players to the prolific quarterbacks of recent years. Landry Jones could have a case by the time he finishes his career. But I'll go with Sims, the 1978 Heisman winner. After two injury-plagued seasons, Sims exploded for 1,762 yards on an incredible 7.6 yards per carry. Add in his bowl-game stats, and he ran for 1,896 yards that season. After that season, he scored two touchdowns against Nebraska in the (in)famous "rematch" Orange Bowl. He had another great season as a senior and is still the leading rusher in Oklahoma history (4,118 yards).

2011 outlook

Oklahoma begins the season ranked No. 1 and it feels like a national-title-or-bust kind of season. They are pretty solid about everywhere. They do have to deal with the injury to linebacker Travis Lewis, who will miss several weeks.

But junior quarterback Landry Jones pilots a prolific offense. Jones, a leading Heisman candidate, led the Big 12 last year with 4,717 yards and 38 touchdowns. Ryan Broyles is an incredible receiver, one of the best in a league full of good receivers. Kenny Stills is also a very good receiver. Last year's leading rusher, Demarco Murray, is gone, but the Sooners still have the dynamic-yet-diminutive Roy Fitch. Led by center Ben Habern, the OU line is pretty solid as well.

The defense, third in yards and points allowed vs Big 12 teams last year, may be the best in the league this year. OU was +161.3 yards per game in conference play last year, by far the best. With all their defensive playmakers, the Sooners could actually have a wider margin than this.

The big question: Can Oklahoma make it to the national title game? No one can fully predict how a college football season will play out, but OU seems to have the parts needed to get through its tough schedule unscathed. I'm not sure how powerful the run game will be, but the passing game should soften things up for it quite a bit. That beings said, the Big 12 is loaded with teams capable of scoring the upset.

The fame at Florida State is a tough early test, and then come the nine conference games. Four are at home (72-2 there under Stoops), another is at a neutral site (Dallas) against Texas, and another is still in the state of Oklahoma, even if it's at rival OSU. The three out-of-state road conference games are at Kansas, at Kansas State and at Baylor, a pretty seemingly manageable slate. Assuming Stoops can keep rivals Texas and Oklahoma State under control, and take care of Texas A&M and Mizzou at home, they'll be on their way to a national title appearance... most likely against a monstrously difficult SEC team.

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