Wed Aug 17 04:38pm EDT
Part of Big 12 Week.
It might make for an interesting experiment, anyway, but the fact is if you went to the trouble of rounding everyone who's voted Oklahoma No. 1 this preseason — the magazines, the pundits, the coaches in the all-important USA Today poll — and asked them to produce a summary of the Sooners' BCS championship credentials, you'd probably get four words back, max: It's the offense, stupid.
So it is. Quarterback Landry Jones has started 21 consecutive games, won 17 of them and last year went off for 300 yards and multiple touchdowns passing in nine — three times in the first half alone. Ryan Broyles caught more passes than any player in America and already has more receiving yards to his name than any player in OU history; sophomore Kenny Stills may be right on his heels. The line gets back five starters with 81 career starts between them. Take away do-it-all tailback DeMarco Murray, and based on last year's blockbuster production, anything short of 40 points on 500 yards per game this fall will still qualify as underachieving.
Impressive business, but still not quite as impressive an endorsement for the offense as this: It has the Sooners atop of the preseason polls despite a defense that, frankly, has a lot of questions to answer about its credentials as a national championship-caliber unit.
It was the defense, after all, that undermined last year's title push, thanks to 36 and 33-point Missouri and Texas A&M, respectively, in Oklahoma's only losses. Earlier in the season, heavy underdogs Utah State, Air Force and Cincinnati all racked up well over 400 yards of total offense in games decided by a grand total of 12 points; later, Oklahoma State scored 41 in a back-and-forth shootout
The run defense plummeted from eighth nationally in 2009 to 58th, struggling at one point or another against pretty much every variety of ground attack it came across: Air Force's old-school triple option ground out 351 yards and three touchdowns on well over 5.5 per carry in a near-upset in September; Missouri's spread went for 178 yards and two touchdowns in the Tigers' actual upset on Oct. 23; Baylor's spread broke off 237 and a pair of scores a month later (though both touchdowns came in garbage time of a Sooner rout). In the meantime, Texas A&M sent tailback Cyrus Gray straight ahead for 122 yards and a touchdown in the Aggies' upset on Nov. 6, which also included a 48-yard run by quarterback Ryan Tannehill on A&M's first snap, setting up another score. UConn rode workhorse Jordan Todman into the line for 121 in the bowl game.
Altogether, that added up to just shy of 150 yards per game on the ground for opposing offenses, more than any defense has ever yielded en route to a BCS championship, and more than all but one team (Miami in 2002) that's ever appeared in the championship game. The Sooners still lack a reliable run stuffer in the middle of the defensive line, and with the exit of All-Big 12 defensive end Jeremy Beal, the temporary absence of All-Big 12 linebacker Travis Lewis over the first month of the season and the untimely death of senior linebacker Austin Box, there's nothing pointing to a substantial improvement. Like last year, establishing the run looks like the surest way for opposing offenses to keep Oklahoma's own arsenal off the field and steadily chip away at a unit that yielded at least 24 points in half of its games.
That said, there's optimism on multiple levels. One is in the secondary, which was much better than the run defense and has more than enough experience — five returning DBs have starting at least one game — to absorb the loss of a pair of starting safeties. Another is the tendency to create turnovers, which kept OU well into the black in the giveaway-margin for the fourth year in a row. There's also the hope that juniors Stacy McGee and/or Jamarkus McFarland will break out of the "growing pains" phase and deliver the dominant presence at defensive tackle that was so sorely missing last year.
And if all else fails, well, there's always the offense. Not so long ago, the 2008 Sooners punched their ticket to the BCS title game on the strength of the highest-scoring attack in college football history, relying on Heisman-bound quarterback Sam Bradford to bury opponents under so many points that the relative mediocrity on defense was almost an afterthought. (Almost: The '08 edition did lose a game in the regular season, 45-35 to Texas, which nearly kept it from the Big 12 and BCS championship games, and eventually dropped the title game against Florida.) Just last year, Auburn's 14-0 run to the top set a new standard for defensive generosity by a BCS champion, by a wide margin. The Tiger offense behind Cam Newton was just that good — and that clutch, pulling out seven games in which it was tied or trailing in the fourth quarter, three on the final snap of the game. If the nation's 53rd-ranked scoring defense can hoist the crystal ball in the end, there's hope for gunslinging outfits everywhere.
If that's the model for Oklahoma in 2011, though, Sooner fans had better go ahead and brace themselves for more than a few long, terrifying nights along the way.