NORMAN – The table has been set just like this before for the Oklahoma Sooners, who come into the 2016 season ranked in the top five.
Just two years ago, Oklahoma garnered the same national attention only to see the season come crashing down in a five-loss campaign, the worst under coach Bob Stoops in almost twenty years. But that wasn’t an outlier, except for maybe in severity.
When the Sooners get heaped with preseason praise, things have recently taken a turn for the worst. Since Oklahoma made its fourth national championship game under Stoops in 2008, it has been ranked in the preseason top-5 on four separate occasions.
Oklahoma lost at least three games in each of those four seasons.
On the flip side, Oklahoma has been ranked outside of the top-5 in three seasons since the 2008 loss to Florida. In each of those seasons, Oklahoma has never lost more than two games.
Here Oklahoma is again: Ranked third in the coaches poll and waiting for the AP to release its rankings.
Exactly how is this year different than the four other seasons that ran off the tracks?
“That first year when I was here, we talked about it,” Oklahoma tight end Mark Andrews said. “’We’re going to be good.’ And this and that. This year, we haven’t really talked about it. . . . It’s just a bunch of guys trying to get better each and every day. We’re not talking about what we did last year. It’s done. This is a new year, and we’re just trying to prove ourselves.”
Excuse or reason: There was a cause for each of the four disappointments – major or small – in the last seven seasons. Immediately following the national championship loss in 2009, Oklahoma had a load of expectations, the No. 3 preseason ranking and eventually sent three of the top four picks in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Things fell apart early when Sam Bradford was lost to a shoulder injury against BYU, and All-American tight end Jermaine Gresham missed the season with injury. Bradford tried to come back but never was 100 percent again. Freshman quarterback Landry Jones was never ready to take the reigns.
Two years later, Oklahoma suffered its first Big 12 home loss in a decade and lost to Baylor for the first time in program history. Oklahoma was the No. 1-ranked team in the nation before the start of the season but lost three games all year.
The very next season Oklahoma was again ranked in the top five but lost three games– to each of the three Heisman Trophy Finalists. The Sooners struggled on defense – don’t forget the West Virginia shootout – in defensive coordinator Mike Stoops' return to the Sooners and the implementation of a new system in his first year. Everything was on Jones in his senior season as the Sooners rushed for 400 yards less than their opponents in 2012.
Then there was 2014: Preseason No. 4, Trevor Knight and Julian Wilson. Knight turned out not to be what the Sugar Bowl indicated, and Oklahoma’s pass defense was a leaking sieve. The leaders from this season watched on 2014 and know the feeling.
“My freshman year, I feel like we didn’t have the overall leadership,” Oklahoma safety Steven Parker said. “We had some leadership, but I don’t think it was as strong as it was last year. I felt like last year, they took notice and said our leadership needs to be better. . . . This year, we’re really trying to make it strong and make it better than last year. Each year, it needs to be better.”
Now, there are some answers to why Oklahoma struggled in the past and other things – like injuries – that simply can’t be explained.
The Sooners’ dynamic playmaker and mismatch weapon isn’t hurt to start the season like in 2009, and Andrews should be a major weapon. Oklahoma’s defense isn’t in flux, and although there are a few starters without experience, the system itself is concrete and has a few elite standouts.
“I think the people that are here, definitely see what it takes and what you can and can’t do,” Andrews said. “I think that it has definitely helped our team to not be satisfied.”
The running game shouldn’t be a problem again. In fact, it should be a major strength, and running back Samaje Perine has a realistic chance to reach the top of Oklahoma’s all-time rushing leaders chart by the end of the season.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some major worries.
The quarterback situation looks a lot like 2009 with a Heisman Trophy candidate starting and a true freshman backing him up. There’s also no way to predict seasons like 2011, when the tragic loss of linebacker Austin Box might have had a lasting impact on the team.
Ultimately, there’s no major predictor on having success with high expectations. The only possible one might have to do with bad seasons fueling great seasons. Oklahoma has never had back-to-back years with less than three losses in the last seven years.
That’s the biggest challenge for Oklahoma this season, blocking out the noise and staying focused.
“It’s tough to go back-to-back years and have success,” Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “You can get caught up with people patting you on the back and telling you how good you are. That’s why much of the success we had last year was because we went 8-5 the year before and people were pissed off. . . . It’s easy to come out that next year and play great. Right now, it’s about blocking out the outside noise and realizing that the work we put into it last year was the reason we had success.”