After the crushing loss to BYU in the season opener, and with bad injury news about Sam Bradford and Jermaine Gresham, the Sooner fan base was unquestionably skeptical that the Sooners had legitimate national title aspirations. On top of those things, the offensive line was also committing penalties and had major blocking issues, and the wide receivers couldn't hold on to balls that hit them in the hands. Those are actually still issues, to a certain point.
Many people started penciling OU in for a few losses, figured that Oklahoma State was suddenly the best team in Oklahoma, and basically ruled out a climb back into the title hunt.
However, after the first back-to-back shutouts posted by the Sooners since 1987, and a combined 109 points scored in both of those games, the clouds may be lifting for OU. We'll dig into the reasons why Oklahoma appears to still be in the national title hunt, but first a few shoutouts regarding the Tulsa game:
- Landry Jones: Congrats, you just put yourself on the national stage by tying a record that had only been met two other times in history! Jones threw 6 touchdowns in the game, which broke the OU single game passing TD record. He also tied the single game passing TD record for a freshman, only met by Luke McCown in 2000 and some guy at Indiana in the 1940s. It appears as though the redshirt freshman QB is more than just a "serviceable backup" for the Sooners.
- Brandon Caleb: It's probably not been too much fun sitting on the sidelines over the past few years, especially after the injury during his sophomore year. However, Caleb gives the team a second receiving threat to Ryan Broyles - something they desperately needed without Gresham suiting up this season. He showed up big time during the Tulsa game and had some of the most reliable hands of any Sooner receiver.
- Brent Venables: It seems like every time the Sooners have a somewhat disappointing game, people are calling for Venables to get canned. Granted, the defenses have been average, at best, over the past few years. However, this defense is loaded with talent. So far, they've held teams to 4.6 points per game, which should be good enough to win you most games. They won't lead the NCAA in yardage defense, but they are opportunistic and efficient. If Venables keeps it up, the defense should keep the team in pretty much every game.
- The Offensive Line: I was shocked to not only see very few penalties, but a solid, mostly unbreakable wall in front of Landry Jones for the entire game. Jones had lots of time to make decisions, which definitely helped him settle in during his 2nd career start.
The latest polls just updated today show that Oklahoma has jumped into the Top 10 in both the AP and the Coaches' Polls. Taking a look at these polls is crucial to understanding why the Sooners still have a chance, beyond the obvious observation that they are the highest ranked 1-loss team.
First, the AP and Coaches' Polls comprise 2/3 of the BCS calculation, with the other third consisting of 6 computer rankings. Therefore, where the Sooners are ranked in these "human" polls has a large bearing on where they wind up in the BCS rankings that decide who plays in the national championship game.
Second, the Sooners get to play two teams ahead of them in the AP rankings, and one team ahead of them in the Coaches' rankings (Miami is 13th in the coaches poll). This has two benefits - if they win out they will jump those two teams, and wins over top 10 opponents may jump them over some undefeated teams with a worse strength-of-schedule.
If we operate under the assumption that OU will win the remainder of its games, including the conference championship game, then that means there will only be seven teams ahead of them in the rankings, because they will have defeated Texas and Miami. Since you only need to be in the top two to qualify for the championship game, we only need to be concerned about jumping 6 additional teams.
The gauntlet that is the SEC will provide some additional help to the Sooners title hopes. Four SEC teams are currently ranked above OU. Three of them are from the SEC West (Alabama, LSU, Mississippi), which guarantees that, at best, only one of them will be undefeated by the end of the season. It's possible they'll all knock each other off. Even if there are two undefeated SEC teams by the end of the season (unlikely), they would meet in the SEC championship game and only one would advance to the BCS National Championship game. We saw how voters view "rematches" when Ohio State and Michigan met a few years back - and it seems like a rematch of a conference championship game is unlikely to occur. Therefore, if OU wins out (and that's a big if), we would likely jump three other teams as well, possibly four depending on how the SEC season goes. This leaves three more teams to be worried about, and these are the teams you should follow closely over the next few weeks. We'll give you a quick breakdown of their schedules:
- Penn State: The Nittany Lions play in the Big 10, an obvious advantage. Not only is the conference "down" lately, but they don't have to play in a conference championship game. They host Iowa in their next game, and Iowa has won 6 of the last 7 meetings versus Penn State. A road trip the following week to Illinois could be somewhat difficult. They also have to play at Michigan on October 24th, and they host Ohio State on November 7th. Will Penn State slip up somewhere along the way? Too early to tell, but there are a number of games that could be difficult. It's not like they blew out Temple yesterday. They also only beat Syracuse 28-7.
- California: This would also be a bit concerning, but the Pac-10 appears to be a bit better this year. After strong showings the first two weeks against weak opponents, Cal struggled to put away Minnesota on the road. They face an immediate three game stretch of tough opponents. This weekend they have to travel to play at Oregon. Then they host USC, a talented team who will undoubtedly want to avoid another loss. They finish up with a trip to the Rose Bowl to play UCLA, who seems to be playing better this season. Their last game is at Washington, who is now ranked (#24 AP), and most of their toughest games are on the road.
- Boise State: There's really no reason to suspect that Boise State won't finish the season undefeated. They did get a good game from Fresno State, but they play in the WAC and there's a clear talent gap between them and the rest of the conference. Their toughest remaining games are probably back-to-back games at Tulsa and at Hawaii. The real question is whether or not the voters would favor an undefeated team with almost no major victories (Boise St.), or a 1-loss team who has defeated numerous ranked opponents (OU).