The Florida State game on Saturday is critical. And you might say, "Of course, if we lose it makes the national title a virtual impossibility". However, I am talking about considerations beyond the postseason bowl game for the Sooners this season. There seems to be a number of factors all coming together to make this an especially important showdown in Norman.
Protecting Home Turf
OU does not play host to ranked non-conference teams very often in Norman. All time, they have played in just 20 such games, with 10 of those coming since 1970 (won 8/10 for a 0.800 winning percentage). This means that big inter-conference games that get national media attention happen only about once every 4 years on average. And yet, OU typically performs very well in these games. Let's also not forget that OU is looking to extend the nation's longest home winning streak to 32 games. Despite some troubles in the recent past in bowl games, on the road, and the struggles last year in general, the one thing that the Sooners can be proud of is that they protect their house.
I'm a huge fan of Bob Stoops. He's brought 6 conference titles to Norman, along with a national title, and I think he does a great job with the Sooners. Plus, he's a role model on and off the field - definitely the sort of person you want to be the face of your program. The one thing that annoys me more than anything is when people call him "Little Game Bob" or ask where "Big Game Bob" went. It's like the guy doesn't stand a chance in "big games". So, part of me wants us to crush Florida State simply to shut all those people up. However, you have to admit that Bob has struggled to get his teams to perform in the big games lately. Consider this: from 1999 to 2004, Bob Stoops' teams were 21-5 (0.808) in games against ranked opponents; from 2005 to 2010, that has fallen to 15-11 (0.577). If you consider only non conference games, Bob is 5-8 all time (0.385). I think Coach Stoops would probably shrug off the notion that he has to prove anything against Florida State. However, I also think that he's got to start turning the tide eventually, reversing the trends, and I hope that starts on Saturday against the Seminoles. Otherwise, where will it stop? When will we finally start winning convincingly on a regular basis in big games?
I think that Landry has got to take the next step against Florida State, or else it might be time to try out some new blood at quarterback. Take a look at Landry's splits from last season:
It is pretty striking how much Landry struggled against better teams, despite his relatively solid performance in the Sun Bowl against Stanford. Quite simply, you're not going to win any hardware with a quarterback who performs that much worse against the elite teams in college football. That's why this game is important for Landry. He's got to show that he can run this offense against a top team, and do it without making many mistakes. He's got to rebound after throwing for his 2nd lowest completion percentage in his career last week. And he's got to show that he can look calm and collected in the pocket instead of jittery and indecisive. If that doesn't happen, you can bet that there will be people calling for a look at Drew Allen. Bottom line, Landry NEEDS to perform well in this game.
Other than last year's debacle in Lubbock, the Sooners have not yielded as many passing yards in a game as they did to Utah State (341) since November 22, 2008, when Texas Tech visited Norman and lost 62-21. Clearly something was wrong, and you can likely point to departed cornerbacks Dom Franks and Brian Jackson as a primary reason why. And yet, the secondary showed some promise. Diondre Borel had not thrown 3 interceptions in any other game in his collegiate career except a game in 2008 against Louisiana Tech as a sophomore. In fact, last season he only threw 4 interceptions total. So, the young secondary showed some ball-hawking ability, but they need to build this into more consistent play. They won't have much time off to think about it as Christian Ponder rolls into Norman this week with the 2nd highest passer rating in FBS right now. I think that the Florida State game is critical in preventing them from sliding into a rut with lowering morale. A solid performance against Florida State could very well help pave the way for a decent defense in 2010. I truly believe that this game will set the tone for the defense in 2010, regardless of what happened in Week One.
Putting It All Together
Perhaps it's just me, but I sort of see the OU football program at a crossroads. The chance is here in the form of a huge, nationally televised game, to make a statement. We are no longer the dominant program of the early 2000s, or even as recent as 2008. However, I also don't think that we're very far away from being dominant again - we have a great coach who recruits well, and a bunch of talent. In fact, I would say that with the amount of talent that we have, we could easily be a dominant team. I'm not sure what it is, but something hasn't been clicking for years. It's been frustrating the past few years to watch a number of OU teams that will go down as "good but not great", and never see one quite make it over the hump.
So will this team be one that, once again loses in the national spotlight and slides into a quiet, above average season? Or will this team see some leaders step up, prove a point, and start building back to dominance? Will Bob find the right magic again and get his team to play with an edge? Or will they come out flat and uninspired? Will Landry Jones look like a quarterback of an elite football program, or will he succumb to the same mistakes that have plagued him in the big games so far in his career?
Can OU find a little bit of that Sooner Magic again? The answers come on Saturday.