By Jeff Latzke, AP Sports Writer
NORMAN, Okla. —
If the signs seem to show Oklahoma falling from the ranks of the national elite, Bob Stoops isn’t buying it.
His Sooners have suddenly become vulnerable at home after six years of utter dominance. The struggles that had once been confined mostly to BCS bowl games are starting to creep into the regular season. The string of conference championships is as much an accomplishment as a tease, whetting the appetite of a passionate fan base that wants to win the Big One — not just the Big 12.
Amid a rough patch that marks the first time Stoops has ever lost back-to-back Big 12 games, and three out of four, the 14th-year head coach is staying the course and insisting the way he’s always done it is still the right way.
“It hasn’t been just a flash in the pan,” Stoops said. “I mean, we have (averaged) 10 wins over the last 13 years. I’m guessing there’s probably not but a couple — two or three teams — that have done that over the last 13 years, and I don’t know who they’d be.
“That’s pretty consistent and I’m not going to all of a sudden abandon what has built the program and what has sustained it over a loss, or two or three last year.”
From a consistency standpoint, Stoops is right. His 10.7 wins per season are the most among college coaches with at least 10 years of experience at the Bowl Subdivision level. He’s just ahead of Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (10.4), TCU’s Gary Patterson (9.9), Georgia’s Mark Richt (9.6) and LSU’s Les Miles (9.4).
The difference for Meyer and Miles is both have national championships in the past five years that drowned out the memories of a five-loss season. Nick Saban averaged 10.3 wins over his past 10 seasons at Alabama and LSU, winning three national titles, although his career average is 8.8 when his time at Michigan State and Toledo is included.
Since losing to Florida in the national championship game following the 2008 season, Stoops’ Sooners haven’t truly been in contention past the first week of November. They were ravaged by injuries in 2009, starting when Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford was hurt in a season-opening loss to BYU, and then had three of the top four players taken in the 2010 NFL draft.
OU was No. 1 in the BCS when it lost at Missouri in 2010, then followed it with another loss at Texas A&M the first week of November. Last October, an unranked Texas Tech team that would notch its only other Big 12 win against last-place Kansas came in and snapped the nation’s longest home winning streak at 39.
In the middle of the stretch, the Sooners went 20 straight games without even trailing on Owen Field. After last Saturday’s loss to Kansas State, they’ve lost two of their last five at home.
“It’s not perfect every year and sometimes you’re stronger than other years, and there’s always a little ebb and flow to most programs,” Stoops said. “But over that period of time, I think we’ve done it as well or better than about anyone in the country. So, you don’t just abandon what has been positive for you because a certain panicked mass wants you to.
“That isn’t me. That won’t happen.”
Could this be more than just a fan base panicking, though?
Barry Switzer, who led the Sooners to three national titles and won more games than anyone else at the school, had a more serious assessment in telling the Tulsa World the problem is “they just don’t have the talent,” particularly on the defensive line.
“We’re not as good as we have been,” Switzer told the newspaper. “We don’t have the Tommie Harrises or Gerald McCoys squatting down there in the middle.”
Switzer has a point. While OU has maintained its position as one of the top recruiting powers in the nation year after year, the four- and five-star talents aren’t turning into top NFL draft picks for a variety of reasons.
From the recruiting classes of 2009 through 2011, the defensive line has been depleted by departures, injuries and position changes to leave only a handful left to carry heavy loads and develop into game-changers.
Justin Chaisson withdrew from school before ever playing a game, Jarrett Brown and Eric Humphrey transferred to Sam Houston State, Daniel Noble’s career ended because of concussion issues and Nathan Hughes and Geneo Grissom moved to offense.
Jamarkus McFarland, a Parade All-American and the magazine’s pick as top defensive lineman in the country in the 2009 recruiting class, has become a part-time starter. but hardly the dominant force that Harris and McCoy were in college.
The struggles have been magnified in defeat.
“The D-tackles have been talked down about for the past couple years, so we’ve still got a little bit more things to do,” starting defensive tackle Casey Walker said before the season, noting everyone is comparing the current players to McCoy.
The defensive tackle position is only one of many missing pieces in the puzzle.
Three running backs transferred out of the program during last season alone. The receiving corps had to be rebuilt on the fly this offseason after a series of suspensions, with Justin Brown’s transfer from Penn State after training camp began giving the Sooners just their second experienced wideout who wasn’t in the doghouse.
Austin Haywood’s transfer left no tight ends on the roster after last season, and Grissom moved from defensive end to take advantage of the chance to play. Yet when defensive tackle Stacy McGee was suspended and Walker missed the start of the season for personal reasons, Grissom’s switch left one less person to fill the void on the defensive front.
All of the robbing Peter to pay Paul takes its toll, even on a roster as loaded as Oklahoma’s.
“On paper, we have all kinds of talent. We’ve got great players,” said Gabe Ikard, who was forced to move from guard and fill in after all-Big 12 center Ben Habern gave up football because of injuries.
“We’ve just got to start putting it together better on the field.”
Ikard said the Sooners have taken an “alarmingly positive” attitude during their off week, in preparation for next week’s game at Texas Tech. During a team meeting to start the week, he said Stoops told the team, “We can’t let it linger. We’ve just got to keep working, keep getting better and keep moving on.”
“Regardless of what everyone thinks, every year for us is a major challenge,” Stoops said, pointing to increased parity and scholarship limits.
“Every game is hard. You invest in trying to improve and get better and that’s what we’ll do this year.”