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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Living In the Past

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Has the game passed Mike Stoops by?

Kansas State v Oklahoma Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

13-2. That was the score of the Orange Bowl on January 3, 2001 as the Sooners claimed what would turn out to be their last national championship until at least the 2017-2018 season (you never know). At the time, Mike Stoops was coordinating the defense, with help from Brent Venables, and was a big-time up-and-coming defensive guru. While the adults were sitting around the television set that evening in 2001, the kids were outside playing with their new Razor scooters--the brand new toy that was taking the nation by storm. Yeah...it's been that long, and demand for Razor scooters isn't the only thing that's changed since then.

The ten-year period following Oklahoma's defeat of Florida State saw the rapid rise and fall of Mike Stoops. Oklahoma would win their next two bowl games, holding Arkansas to three points before giving up just fourteen to Washington State. From there, the writing was on the wall: Bob's younger brother had it figured out. He would get hired by Arizona in 2003, where he would eventually lead the team to three straight bowl games (the third of which was made possible by two of the teams finishing higher than Arizona being deemed ineligible for post-season play), before bottoming out--hard--in 2011, as he was fired after a bleak 1-5 start. Three months and one day later, he would be brought back to Norman to help the Sooners return to glory.

While Mike Stoops was trying to find success in the Pac-10, the Big 12 was turning itself into a league of offensive powerhouses. For example, when Stoops led Arizona to his first bowl game in 2008, three of the top-four scoring offenses in the country (Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech) resided in the Big 12, and they were redefining the way the conference would come to play football moving forward. If history is any indication, it looks like Stoops was completely left behind following this revolution. His first year back with Oklahoma, the Sooners finished 48th in points-per-game allowed, tied with Arkansas State and barely beating out the powerhouse defenses of NC State and Western Kentucky. To be fair to Stoops, the following three years have seen the Sooners finish much higher than that twice (but also even worse once). That's a pretty fair way to describe the OU defense overall: capable, but inconsistent.

While Oklahoma may not always have the very best recruiting classes, those classes are reliably filled with talent and are highly ranked nationally, so to blame the performance solely on the players themselves would be unfair. Yes, the players do make mistakes or get beat on plays at times, but a lot of the problems the Sooners face appear to be coaching issues. Just ask some former players after Baylor came to Norman in 2014 and took advantage of seven-yard cushions to put up a whopping 48 points on a Sooners defense that never had a chance. Coincidentally, the season that saw players openly arguing with Mike Stoops on the sideline would be Stoops' last season on the sidelines, since he's now been moved to the press box.

In case you were wondering, Tony Jefferson and Julian Wilson aren't the only ones who have issues with Stoops' defensive schemes at times. After Ohio State came to Norman this weekend to destroy Oklahoma's playoff hopes and embarrass the Sooners in front of one of their biggest groups of recruits to ever come visit, Zack Sanchez commented that things needed to change, lest it actually--somehow--get worse.

If you're going to tell me that the game is fundamentally different, that today's football is all about minimizing mistakes and trying to hold spread offenses in check long enough for your own team to rack up points, save your breath. I get it: we are no longer playing in the wishbone era that allowed teams like Oklahoma (and specifically Oklahoma) to dominate college football. However, that's not a good enough excuse to let the Sooners off the hook for what has been a serious decline from the type of defense Sooner Nation has come to expect. Changes in the offensive game mean that coordinators need to adapt their schemes, and others have shown that it's not impossible to do that.

Take, for example, the man who helped Mike Stoops coach that Oklahoma defense back when it was shutting down opponents at the beginning of the century: Venables. The coordinator that Bob Stoops let walk when he brought his brother back to town has been building a dominant unit at Clemson. In fact, Venables has faced off against Oklahoma twice in the last two years, allowing just 11.5 points per game in those contests. For those of you who've blocked the incidents from your memory, Mike Stoops' defense allowed 38.5 points per game in those same games. I know Venables wasn't perfect at the end of his time in Oklahoma, but right now it's certainly looking like Oklahoma let the better man walk.

The defensive-minded teams in football know offenses can still be stopped, and they've stocked up on either rising stars or big-name hires to lead their squads. Alabama hired Jeremy Pruitt, who's recently led great defenses at Florida State and Georgia. Pruitt's good enough that Alabama is still going to be great even after losing its last coordinator to a head-coaching job. Florida is in its second year with Geoff Collins, who it hired immediately after he led Mississippi State's excellent defense from 2011-2014. LSU has an up-and-coming coordinator it took from Wisconsin. The list goes on like this. At power programs, coaches typically hire either established coaches at the height of their game or rising stars who've led defenses with less talent to great results. Meanwhile, Oklahoma is relying on a former great whose best years seem to have come before the first iPhone.

Mike Stoops is not a bad defensive coordinator. Let's be clear about that. However, he doesn't seem to be the right coordinator for the era in which he now finds himself. The Sooners have the look of a team ready to stop the power-I formation, but with teams running plays from the shotgun and trying to get the edge, the Sooners' defense looks remarkably slow. Ohio State beat Oklahoma on the outside over and over again Saturday night, and the linebackers were nowhere to be found. Similarly, Oklahoma looked troubled against motion plays that Ohio State ran, with experienced players getting confused to the point that no one lined up where they needed to be on an early fourth-down-turned-touchdown for the Buckeyes that set the stage for Saturday's beat-down. Slow defenses that aren't being prepared for the intricacies of modern offenses have no chance against today's elite teams. While Oklahoma can mask its shortcomings against inferior talent, when faced against good teams with smart offenses, they struggle mightily.

My advice? It's simple. In fact, it's not even my advice--it's the advice of Sanchez. Adjustments need to be made, or its only going to get worse. On offense, the Sooners cut ties with an old friend to bring in one of the brightest assistant coaches in the nation. Until they consider doing the same on defense, I'm worried that Oklahoma is doomed to relive history over and over, each year starting with the Chase for Eight and ending in familiar heartbreak. At least we’ll always have that Orange Bowl...