2009 Sun Bowl - Stanford vs. Oklahoma

The CFN 2009 Sun Bowl Preview - Stanford vs. Oklahoma

2009 Sun Bowl

Stanford (8-4) vs. Oklahoma (7-5)

El Paso, TX, Dec. 31, 2 pm, CBS

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Team Pages and 2009 Season

If someone had told you four months ago that Stanford and Oklahoma would be playing in a bowl game, you'd have thought 1) the Cardinal came up with an all-timer of a season, or 2) Oklahoma was a total mess, or 3) a little of both.

For a Sooner program that has made January bowl appearances a regular occurrence the Sun Bowl isn't exactly the prize that it is for the Cardinal, but in a transitional season when just about everything that went wrong went wrong, it's not that bad a bowl game. At 7-5, the record equals the 1999 season under Bob Stoops, and then the next year came the national championship. Since 2000, OU has won 13, 11, 12, 12, 12, 8, 11, 11, and 12 games with four national title appearances, six Big 12 championships, and seven BCS appearances as Stoops has revived one of the college football's elite of the elite programs. By almost any measure, Oklahoma has been a powerhouse who deserves to be considered among the elite of the elite programs over the last decade, but there has been one glaring issue that Stoops and his team have to get past. For all the great things the team has done, for all the wins, and for all the Big 12 titles, OU has become a disaster in the bowls.

Ever since Mike Stoops left to take on the Arizona head coaching job, which came around the time of the meltdown in the 2003 Big 12 Championship loss to Kansas State, OU has lost five of its last six bowls with the only win coming over Oregon in the 2005 Holiday. While winning the Sun Belt wouldn't make up for the three national title defeats, the let down vs. Boise State in the 2006 Fiesta, and the clunker against West Virginia in the 2007 Fiesta, it would show that everything might really be fine and this season was simply a bump in the road.

Think about what might have been. Had Sam Bradford stayed healthy all year, OU would've beaten BYU and Miami (they lost each game by a point), likely would've been four points better against Texas, and wouldn't have been awful against Nebraska. Landry Jones was a solid fill-in and showed the potential to be the next great Sooner QB, but it's not insane to suggest that the Sooners would've been 11-1, assuming Bradford wouldn't have been enough to overcome the buzzsaw loss at Texas Tech, had Bradford and TE Jermaine Gresham been able to go. Yeah, but they weren't healthy and there were a slew of other injury problems that hit the team hard throughout the season. Stanford isn't going to care very much that OU had issues.

The Cardinal became the Pac 10's hot team this season thanks to a stunning 55-21 blowout win over USC, an impressive 45-38 win over Notre Dame, and with a 51-42 win over Pac 10 champ Oregon, but the consistency wasn't there. The USC win was followed up with a home loss to a mediocre Cal team. The defense didn't show up in losses at Oregon State and Arizona, while there was a strange, tough early season loss at Wake Forest that served as the only blemish on a great first five weeks. Led by Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart, an "it" head coach in Jim Harbaugh, and a hotshot freshman quarterback, Andrew Luck, this was among the nation's most fun teams. But it'll take a win over the Sooners to truly validate the season.

The last time Stanford was in the Sun Bowl was also the team's last bowl win beating Michigan State 38-0 in 1996. Since 1978, the Cardinal has appeared in seven bowl games and has won just two, but it has been eight years since the last post-season appearance, a Seattle Bowl loss to Georgia Tech, and this is a whole new era and a whole different program now. This isn't a cute little story; this is a team that really is good enough to beat Oklahoma.

The Pac 10 has won the last five Sun Bowls and this usually has been an entertaining game with four of the last six games decided by a total of nine points, and unlike last year's 3-0 Oregon State win over Pitt, this should be a bit more fun.

Players to Watch
: Toby Gerhart lost the Heisman to Mark Ingram by a hair, and now he'll be looking to show that he probably deserved a few extra votes. The senior could come back for one more year if he wanted to, but he's going to be off to the NFL and this will be his final chance to make a big statement against the best run defense he'll face all season. A true workhorse with 20 or more carries in 11 of the 12 games this year, he leads the nation in rushing yards with 1,736 to go along with 26 touchdowns including 13 rushing scores in the final three games. Only Wake Forest (83 yards) and Oregon State (96) held Gerhart to under 100 yards, and Stanford lost both of those games. He'll have to carry more of the workload than normal with Luck likely out with a finger injury, but even though Oklahoma will know the fastball is coming, it's not a sure thing that it can do anything about it. Gerhart is that good.

Oklahoma finished seventh in the nation against the run anchored by All-America DT Gerald McCoy, a 6-4, 297-pound star who's playing his final college game. The junior has already said he's leaving early for the NFL and will almost certainly be a top five pick in the 2010 Draft as long as he can get through this game healthy. While he's not a stat-sheet filler like a Ndamukong Suh of Nebraska, and he's not a block of granite type of tackle who clogs everything up like Alabama's Terrence Cody, but he does a little of everything right. 14.5 of his 31 tackles came behind the line of scrimmage, and while he's a disruptive force who demands a double team on every play, he might have problems against a line that allowed a mere six sacks on the year.

While this game doesn't mean much in the overall scheme of the planet, it's a big moment for the Oklahoma offseason and the perception of Landry Jones, the talented freshman who played like a burgeoning superstar at times, throwing five touchdown passes against Texas A&M and six against Tulsa, and a freshman in other games with five picked against Nebraska and 13 overall on the year. Unlike Sam Bradford last year, Jones didn't get the benefit of playing behind a veteran line that was one of the best in America, and he didn't have the targets to work with that the Heisman-winner enjoyed. Stanford will give up passing yards in chunks and the opportunity will be there to hit several big plays, but the key will be to make the routine ones. As long as Jones settles into a groove and takes what the soft Cardinal secondary will give him, he should be able to keep the chains moving. However, it'll be tempting to bomb away on a Cardinal D that gives up 252 yards per game and doesn't generate much pressure into the backfield.

Stanford will win if ... Tavita Pritchard has the game of his life. Assuming that Luck is out, or possibly limited, it'll be up to Pritchard to show early on that the Stanford passing game needs to be respected. It's not like he's being plucked out of chem class to get his shot in the big game; he was the starter for most of last year and was a big part of the upset at USC two years ago. While his main job will be to hand it off to Gerhart, he has to push the ball down the field successfully early on or else OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables will send everyone and the Sooner Schooner up to the line to stop the run. Pritchard's biggest issue has been interceptions, and considering he'll be under pressure, he has to keep the mistakes to a minimum and not be afraid to eat the ball and live to fight another day.

Oklahoma will win if ... the run defense stuffs Gerhart. OU faced two teams this season that could run, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. The Cowboys ran for 62 yards in a 27-0 loss, while the Aggies ran for 59 yards in a 65-10 nail-biter. Stanford should have a few new wrinkles added to the mix with all the extra time to prepare, but in the end it all comes down to blocking and tackling, and OU does that extremely well. Outside of the 41-13 disaster at Texas Tech, the defense's problem has been coming up with the big stop late in losses to Miami and BYU. But for the most part, the D isn't the reason OU is 7-5.

The other big key for OU will be to care and to handle itself outside of the State of Oklahoma. This has been a cute stat over the last few years, and now it has become a major issue. Since an opening day loss to TCU on September 3, 2005, Oklahoma is 33-0 inside the state's borders. Step outside, even in neutral site games or relative home dates in Texas, and over that same span OU is 15-16 and 0-5 this year. Oklahoma, even in a down year, is better than Stanford, but it has to play like it and treat this seriously.

What will happen: Pritchard won't be Luck, and even if Luck is able to go the Stanford passing game won't go anywhere. The Oklahoma run defense will bottle up Gerhart and will hold him to his lowest output of the season, Jones will come up with a huge day throwing the ball, and with one big game, and Oklahoma will be back to being among the highly ranked programs in the 2010 preseason rankings. Stanford is well coaches and isn't going to get rolled over, and Harbaugh and his staff should be able to make a few adjustments to keep this interesting, but OU's defense will be the story.

CFN Prediction: Oklahoma 38 … Stanford 17 ... Line: Oklahoma -8

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Best Sooner Bowl Moment: Although the last five BCS bowl appearances have been eminently forgettable, OU's 24-17-1 bowl record ranks among the best of any program with at least 15 appearances. The Sooners, regulars in Miami throughout the years, used the 2001 Orange Bowl as a vehicle to regaining their status as a perennial national title contender. The Oklahoma defense suffocated high-powered Florida State in a shocking 13-2 win that captured the school's seventh national championship.

Best Cardinal Bowl Moment: When you're a member of the Pac-10, success is measured by Rose Bowl victories. For Stanford, that hasn't happened since the early 1970s. The Cardinal actually won back-to-back games in 1971 and 1972 under the guidance of head coach John Ralston. In 1971, it handed Ohio State its first loss of the year, 27-17, behind Heisman-winning QB Jim Plunkett. In 1972, it gave Michigan its lone blemish, 13-12, on the strength of QB Don Bunce and a game-winning field goal from Rod Garcia with 12 seconds left.

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