Some of us still remember it all too well. The National Championship scene was set, and South Beach was abuzz with Sooner Crimson and Gator blue (among all the vice cops on bikes, the tans and other fake assets, of course). OU was finally back in the big one following a landmark, record-setting season led by a Heisman-winning QB, and the culmination of a frustrating four-year arc for Big Game Bob. After USC in the Rose Bowl, after TCU at home in ‘05, after 37 straight second-half run plays to escape against Tulsa that same season, after fake-car salesman/QBs who handed off 37 straight times had to be kicked off the roster, after Oregon, after AD’s collarbone, after Boise State, after DeMarcus Granger’s Arizona coat-shopping visit leading up to the West Virginia game, after the West Virginia game…keep going? Surely this was it, right?
Even after the famed Red River upset months before couldn’t keep this team from surging to the finish line to hoist that crystal ball. Sound familiar? But that’s where the momentum would screech to a halt for the 2008 Sooners. Despite crushing Mizzou 62-21 in the Big XII Championship Game, disaster struck again near halftime…
Demarco Murray, injured on a return, would be out vs. Florida. A couple of weeks later, we’d learn the Gators’ Percy Harvin would return, nursing an ankle of his own, to face the Sooners in January. No need to revisit the national title game in detail, since none of us have forgotten the frustrating the penalties, turnovers and points left on the field that ultimately decided a winnable game against clearly the best defense in the nation. A healthy Murray plays in that game, and OU are 2008 National Champions.
Disappointed, yes, but we knew with a possibly returning Bradford, stronger and even more confident, OU could surely mount another run at this thing. The ’04 team at least got there again with a returning J-White after coming painfully short of Stoops’ second national title the year before. So the ‘09 squad can finish what the ’08 juggernaut began…right?
Enter 2009. Or don’t. We can actually choose to forget that season ever existed, as I do on most days. Think back to that time and you’ll remember that before September even arrived, All-Everything Tight End/future first-round pick Jermaine Gresham wouldn’t suit up a single game his senior season after a knee injury sustained at camp. Demarco Murray and Ryan Reynolds would be back, but LB Mike Balogun, who stepped up big in Reynolds’ absence the season before, would be ruled ineligible. The WR core underwent a hefty makeover from ’08 – gone were stalwarts Juaquin Iglesias and Manny Johnson – in were DeJuan Miller and Jaz Reynolds. Yikes.
The saving grace would of course be Ryan Broyles’, a.k.a. Landry Jones’ favorite person in the universe, breakout season and the eventual contributions of transfer Cameron Kenney. Despite Trent Williams returning, the most crucial, and ultimately most damning, issue that season would be rebuilding the dominant, mountain-moving offensive line after losing four of five starters from ’08 including All-Americans Duke Robinson and Phil Loadholt.
Regardless of these significant issues, Oklahoma was ranked No. 3 to open the season and would take on No. 20 BYU in Dallas at the inaugural Cowboy Classic. From the get-go that game’s feel wasn’t right, unfortunately foreshadowing the season as well. Tied at 7 and facing incredible pressure from a quick and ferocious Cougar front, reigning Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford went down on his shoulder and out of the game right before halftime. The writing was on the wall and the fan was covered in you-know-what after that one play. As admirably as LJ stepped up upon being thrown into the fire, the moment would be too big for almost any freshman, and shell-shocked OU fell in Jerry World to a damn good and pretty lucky BYU team.
Then OU fell again three weeks later at Miami to Jacory Harris and his short-lived swagger. Good news arrived as Slingin’ Sammy would return to face Baylor the next week. But the early blindside hit on him in the RRR game a week later would sideline the suddenly star-crossed QB for the rest of the season. And further down the spiral went the Sooners, as a national top-5 defense would be forced to carry an undermanned, inexperienced and overwhelmed offense the rest of the way.
The Sooners would continue to improve, however, and despite an embarrassing loss in Lubbock and a five-INT-laden catastrophe in Lincoln, finished the season strong by shutting out the Pokes at home and defeating Heisman candidate and future NFL RB Toby Gerhart and Stanford in the Sun Bowl. Oh, but wait, not before Adrian Taylor horrendously broke his leg in the first half, making it a bittersweet victory to end a lost season.
Obviously the expectations going into 2008 and 2015 were vastly different. OU last season somewhat resembled the 2000 team, sans the still-puzzling loss to Texas. Starting from No. 19 and rolling into the Cotton Bowl highly favored and ranked in the top 10, what the 2015 team did similar to the one led by Bradford and crew was respond to their own RRR upset with sheer determination and, ultimately, domination. The same way the ’08 team would turn the rushing attack around, make adjustments on defense and see young stars step up to complement the vets, last year’s Sooners marched through the schedule post-Texas in blistering fashion.
Although unlike the OU-UF title game, I wasn’t in attendance in Miami for last year’s crushing playoff loss to a bigger, faster Clemson team. One can’t help but be reminded of losing both RBs before this game was over, and Demarco Murray on the sidelines in ’08. Or the string of penalties late in the first half that sealed OU’s demise in the second to the early ones that did the same against Florida. OU went into half against Florida tied at 7 (should’ve been 21-7 or 14-7), and led Clemson by a score of 17-16. But the team that took the field after halftime last NYE appeared to be the team that lost to Texas in October, not the one who made quick work of the Big 12.
This season’s vaunted two-headed rushing attack led by Hurricane Perine and Tornado Joe (and Tsunami Dimitri for that matter) might actually grow more heads considering Rodney Anderson and Daniel Brooks will likely see expanding roles in Lincoln Riley’s backfield. This unit is even more potent and dynamic than Demarco and Co. The major difference here from 2009 is the experience, size, depth and athleticism returning on the O-Line this season, likely led by Orlando Brown, Dru Samia and rising star Bobby Evans. With some luck and health on our side, this could likely be THE driving force in ensuring this season doesn’t turn into that one, at least on offense.
The WR unit is slightly harder to gauge at the moment, but on paper, it looks formidable. Next man up DeDe Westbrook seems poised to step into the mammoth shoes beloved son Sterling left behind, and an ever-improving Mark Andrews could more than adequately fill a go-to role that Gresh had taken from him prematurely in 2009. I’m more optimistic about the complementary wideouts this season than the unit 7 years ago. We heard Bob heap praise on stud frosh Mykel Jones making waves this spring and summer, as well as Jordan Smallwood perhaps ready to make the jump to solid contributor. Big targets Dahu Green, A.D. Miller and Penn State transfer Geno Lewis also look to make an immediate impact. This unit could be either the thorn in our side all season, or the icing on the cake.
Baker, already more comfortable in the offense, will have mostly familiar faces keeping him upright in the pocket, and the beastly RB’s are only hungrier after the sting of the Clemson game. So as long as Baker is on the field, the offense will eventually find rhythm.
The defense, however, is a different story. The exodus of kings on campus Eric Striker, Charles Tapper and Zack Sanchez leaves the Sooners’ with some experience and leadership questions heading into next season. But the recent adjustments to defensive recruiting over the last few years will be on full display right from the start. New faces all over the field appear faster, stronger and more athletic than some seasons past. And the commitment flip from Parrish Cobb is a great example of Mike keeping after and bringing in elite prospects at secondary, the crucial staple of a solid Stoops defense. Already we’re hearing PJ Mbanasor has vastly improved, and most expect Jordan Thomas will play in the opener with Dakota Austin likely opposite to start. As long as the front with numerous starters returning holds up, the secondary could feast.
Outside of losing Strike, OU’s LBs in 2016 will be big and heavy hitters, and already, Bob’s mentioned Tay Evans and incoming freshman stud Caleb Kelly could make immediate impacts. But youth is always expected to go through growing pains, and it remains to be seen how the early schedule affects this group’s production and mindset.
It’s easy to blame the 2009 season on the freakish injuries, and they were monumental and undoubtedly played a major role. But the inexperienced and rebuilding offensive line and WR core ultimately set the stage for that season’s unraveling. The expectations were too high given the holes on the roster. But being Oklahoma, a top-5 ranking is to be expected on a team returning a Heisman-winning QB and a host of returning starters on defense.
So here we are in a similar situation, ranked No. 3 to open the season against a ranked and very hyped mid-major Houston Cougar team, which features a highly productive returning QB (like BYU’s Max Hall in ’09), in Texas. Although there is no Ndamukong Suh and a resurgent Nebraska or Colt McCoy leading an elite Texas team on this season’s schedule, OU travels to Fort Worth early to face growing annual menace TCU, a very tricky test before the RRR. And who could forget No. 5 Ohio State rolling into Norman in week 3? So you’ll understand why I’m a little on edge during these next few weeks leading up to the season. We’ve all been here before.
Our eyes are definitely on the prize again. We can’t help it. We are the Sooner Nation. But here’s to hoping that prize at season’s end is a little more enticing that beating Toby Gerhart and Stanford in the Sun Bowl.