In 2006, what was once known as Division I-AA was re-classified as the Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS. The majority of Football Bowl Subdivision teams (FBS) play at least one FCS opponent each season, but the Oklahoma Sooners have been one of the few exceptions. OU has only played four such programs since 1999. However, this weekend’s game will add to that list as South Dakota comes to town.
It’s well-documented what the opponent gets out of these epically lopsided matchups. A hefty paycheck that goes towards its football program or other avenues within the athletic department is a nice trade-off for what typically plays out on the field. But what about Oklahoma? What do the Sooners get out of playing these games? For one, the price tag is much lower than it would be for a Group of Five opponent, but is there something to learn? Let’s take a look at OU’s previous FCS meetings and see if those ever revealed key developments or spelled any signs of things to come.
Indiana State — Sept. 11, 1999
When Bob Stoops took over Oklahoma’s football team as a first-time head coach prior to the 1999 season, his Sooners opened up the season against D I-AA member Indiana State. Not only was OU embarking on a new coaching era, there was a new signal caller behind center with Josh Heupel at the helm. Out of any of the games played against FCS-level opponents in the last two decades, this one revealed the most because of all the newness on the coaching staff as well as on the field.
Stoops brought in OC Mike Leach with him to usher in the Air Raid offense, which before that point was a relatively novel concept to the sport and completely foreign to Oklahoma. Turns out they had the right man for the job on the field with Heupel, as the lefty set school records in his debut with five passing touchdowns, 31 completions and tied the program benchmark with 341 yards. In the end, the Sooners shut out the Sycamores, 49-0, and the dawn of a resurgent era for OU Football was born.
Chattanooga — Aug. 30, 2008
Coming off a loss to West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl, Oklahoma was looking to kick off the 2008 season with a decisive victory. Sam Bradford, DeMarco Murray and company welcomed the Chattanooga Mocs (short for mockingbirds) to Norman, and by halftime the score had reached 50-0.
A lightning storm in the area extended the break by 72 minutes, and by the time the second half began, both sides were in relative cruise control. In the end, the Sooners won 57-2, and with so much experienced depth on the team, there really wasn’t much to come away with from this one other than it proving Oklahoma had the chance to have a special year offensively. Of course, that turned out to be very true.
Idaho State — Sept. 12, 2009
Another FCS opponent, another downpour. As the Idaho State Bengals strolled into Oklahoma, the Sooners were also heading to Norman after a season-opening defeat at the hands of BYU in Arlington. If you recall, Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford went down late in the first half with a shoulder injury, so a redshirt freshman Landry Jones was thrust into action against the Cougars. Bradford would return a few games later to beat Baylor, but a re-aggravation of the injury during the OU-Texas game would result in the reins being given to Jones for the rest of the season.
In his first start, Jones obviously looked better than he did the week prior, but it was clear that the offense was not nearly as efficient as it had been in the previous two seasons. The sloppy conditions likely factored into that, but taking the rest of that 8-5 ‘09 season into account, it was also a sign of things to come.
However, with OU essentially playing against air, Jones was able to put his arm talent on full display for the fan base for the first time. Another positive foreshadowing was the budding connection between Jones and Ryan Broyles, as the two of them linked up for 155 yards and three touchdowns. In the end, Idaho State posed no threat from start to finish as Oklahoma won, 64-0.
Florida A&M — Sept. 8, 2012
After opening away from home against UTEP, the Sooners hosted its first opponent in Week 2, this time being FCS foe Florida A&M. Oklahoma’s skill positions were relatively young across the board, and the team was in need of leaders stepping up.
RB Damien Williams completely exploded onto the scene, scoring four touchdowns and rushing for 156 yards on just 10 carries. On the outside, Penn State transfer WR Justin Brown hauled in two passes for 55 yards in addition to a 43-yard punt return. In addition to those two becoming major contributors for that season, the defense’s inconsistent performance was also a bit concerning in Mike Stoops’ first year back at OU after giving up several runs over 10 yards and a 75-yard pass for a touchdown. Ultimately, Oklahoma cruised to a 69-13 win, but the D continued to give up big plays throughout the season.
Using those four meetings with the Sycamores, Mocs, Bengals and Rattlers, what can Oklahoma expect to learn following its game this Saturday against the South Dakota Coyotes?
The number one thing is avoiding injuries. That means starting fast and building a comfortable lead early in order to rest starters as soon as possible. Still, not all positions are created equally, because some need more time on the field than others. In the season opener against Houston, while many reserves were already deployed on offense, the starting O-line remained in the game until the final drive. That position group is quite green outside of C Creed Humphrey, so you can expect the line to once again use extra reps to iron out their pass-protection and run-blocking calls.
Although Jalen Hurts ideally won’t see the field beyond halftime, this game is an opportunity for him to further work on his ability to stand in the pocket and go through his progressions. Against UH, he often elected to call his own number when he had a chance to scramble and buy more time for something downfield. Of course, he’s no Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray in that regard, and Lincoln Riley isn’t trying to make him something he’s not, but that’s a part of his game that could use development and in turn help the offense add a new dimension when facing more sophisticated defenses in the future.
We’ll also need to keep an eye on backup quarterbacks Tanner Mordecai and Spencer Rattler, and the latter should see the field for the first time in his collegiate career. However, OU will likely keep things on the ground by the time Rattler enters, so we might not get to see too much of the arm talent. Still, fans will at least get to see something.
The defense stole the show for much of the night on Sunday, and the hiring of DC Alex Grinch continues to look like a home run. It goes without saying that the talent gap between Oklahoma and South Dakota should be stark. Because of that, and because of how close the Sooners were to forcing multiple turnovers in the opener, it’s time to see just how capable the defenders on this team are when it comes to imposing their will and taking the ball away. Consistent aggression will also be something to keep track of, as it would be easy to take their foot off the gas against the ‘Yotes.
That said, it’s not unlikely that Oklahoma comes out firing on all cylinders, plays 60-plus players, wins by 70 and still learns practically nothing about itself. The challenge for the team will be respecting this opponent enough to take care of business while also giving as many younger and/or inexperienced players as possible a real chance to build on their individual growth for the betterment of the team.
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