It's the same story every offseason: Results of bowl games disproportionately influence the hype of teams entering the next season. This is typically in the form of a bowl bump, when a team that played its best game of the year in a bowl -- our last memory of a team, supposedly gaining momentum into the offseason -- rockets up preseason rankings as a popular team to pick to do big things.
Oklahoma knows this well. And now Oklahoma knows the opposite. Our last memories of the Sooners create the image of a team in the midst of a free fall, when in reality the Sooners have a chance to rebound in a big way.
A year ago, Oklahoma was the toast of the offseason. The Sooners had surprisingly out-gunned Alabama 45-31 in the Sugar Bowl, a showcase game for quarterback Trevor Knight that vaulted him into the 2014 Heisman discussion. While the Sooners were beneficiaries of a bowl bump, it's not like the hype was entirely unjustified. (Yes, I bought in too.) This was Oklahoma, after all, a team that played in nine BCS games and won eight Big 12 championships from 2000-13. Getting excited about Oklahoma under Bob Stoops is never a terrible idea, even if the hype was clearly influenced by what the Sooners did in their high-profile bowl win. The Sooners started the season well, too, and their first two losses came by a total of five points to TCU and Kansas State.
And then the wheels came off, and now we see an overcorrection in the opposite direction. The last time we saw Oklahoma, it lost 40-6 to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl, a game in which star Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson didn't even play. The Sooners' identity-less offense was hopeless against arguably the best defense in college football, this after a demoralizing 38-35 overtime loss to rival Oklahoma State to end the regular season, thanks to a 92-yard punt return touchdown in the final minute of regulation. Oklahoma finished 8-5 in a season in which it opened in the top five and went on to be favored in all 13 games it played -- meaning all five of its losses were viewed, at least in part, as upsets.
This summer, nobody cares much about Oklahoma, beyond wondering if Stoops is going to get fed up and leave or overstay his welcome, because coaching longevity at one place is hard to attain without all parties getting sick of each other.
High-profile jobs like Oklahoma are talked about in extremes, and Stoops has never necessarily gotten the credit he deserves. You're either winning championships or you're not, and winning a national championship in 2000 -- Stoops' second year, 15 years removed from the Sooners' last national title -- quickly set the bar high. It's a team that claims seven national championships and places many teams among the best in the sport's history, but it's a team that also went to only three bowl games in the 10 years after Barry Switzer left and before Stoops was hired. Oklahoma has one of the proudest histories in college football, and thus it wants to do everything it can to avoid a prolonged stay outside the national conversation, like it experienced in the 1990s. Right now, the assumption is that the Stoops era is fighting against a decline, at the same time that TCU and Baylor have taken over the conference and Texas has attempted to make a comeback by hiring a new coaching staff.
After a decade and a half as a head coach at one school, it's not often that one encounters new situations. But 2015 does, in a way, present a new situation -- and a new beginning -- for Stoops. He has had plenty of new offensive coordinators, but until now it has never been a voluntary change. For the first time, Oklahoma has been so aimless on offense that Stoops decided to part ways with co-coordinators Jay Norvell and Josh Heupel -- the quarterback of the 2000 national championship team -- and attempt to recapture some of the magic of previous Oklahoma teams that had terrific offenses under Stoops, a defensive-minded coach.
In steps Lincoln Riley, a rising young coach with a clear identity and vision who excelled at East Carolina and has ties to the Mike Leach/Air Raid coaching tree. (Stoops also hired Leach assistant Dennis Simmons as the receivers coach.) Leach, Mark Mangino, Chuck Long, Kevin Wilson and Kevin Sumlin have all moved on to head coaching jobs after serving as offensive coordinator under Stoops, a typical byproduct of a long run of success. When you win, you're going to lose coaches to promotions. It's also impossible to bat 1.000 when experiencing such prominent staff turnover, which is why last winter's changes shouldn't be surprising. Stoops had never fired a coordinator, and the streak was bound to be broken. In fact, we should be more impressed that Stoops crafted stability for so long despite the coaching staff turnover.
Instead, the panic button apparently has been pushed. Co-coordinators have been fired for the first time. The defense has been just as problematic, particularly with the hopeless coverage it attempted to play against Baylor. Baylor, which was previously 0-19 against Oklahoma, has won three of the last four meetings, averaging 42 points in those games. Big 12 newcomer TCU, once left out of the new Big 12 after the demise of the Southwest Conference, has joined Baylor as a national power. And, perhaps most importantly, Oklahoma has been unable to take advantage of the demise of archrival Texas and dominate the conference.
But don't write an obituary for the Stoops era just yet.
If preseason publications are any indication, the Sooners are likely to be ranked somewhere between 16-25 when the polls come out in August. Only once since 2000 have they started outside the top 10 in the AP poll (16th in 2013), and they opened last year ranked fourth. Oklahoma may not win the Big 12 or make the playoff this year, but it can be a factor in both races.
While the Riley hire looks like a copycat move after TCU engineered a massive offensive turnaround by bringing in the Air Raid, Stoops has succeeded with similar styles in the past, and the personnel has the potential to thrive. This very well could be the perfect fix for a program that needed some fresh blood to shake things up but was not entirely broken. Riley was among the most coveted rising coaches in the nation last year, and Stoops wisely lured him to Norman.
There are no guarantees, of course. Knight and Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield (plus Cody Thomas) are battling for the starting quarterback job, with no clear frontrunner, and both tackles from one of the nation's top offensive lines were drafted. But tailback Samaje Perine was a revelation for much of his freshman season, breaking Melvin Gordon's week-old single-game rushing record. Sterling Shepard was one of the nation's top receivers the first half of the season before hitting injury trouble, with his absence playing a role in the Sooners' late-season demise. Juco transfer DeDe Westbrook may quickly become a star slot receiver in Riley's offense. The line still returns some experience, led by senior center Ty Darlington. And Alex Ross, Durron Neal and Michiah Quick are proven role players. (Plus, there's the saga of former five-star tailback prospect Joe Mixon, who returns from a season-long suspension.)
"I just felt that it will give us more opportunity, hopefully, again, to stay on the field longer, eat up more yards, gain field position and score points," Stoops said at Big 12 media day. "But we've yet to do that. Lincoln's had a great track record in running this offense, and I believe we've got good personnel to go with this style of offense. We're very aware of the quality of backs that we have and feel that we'll take advantage of that and that that will mesh really well with what Lincoln wants to do."
Throw in building blocks for a defense in pass rusher Eric Striker and cornerback Zack Sanchez -- two players who, at the least, are capable of making game-changing plays -- and Oklahoma has a chance, with a few better breaks and better injury luck, to change the conversation about Stoops, who at age 54 may still be only at the midway point of his head coaching career.
All of which makes Sept. 12 one of the most intriguing days on the college football calendar. Last year, a still-powerful Oklahoma torched Tennessee 34-10 at home in front of a prime-time audience. This year, trajectories are supposed to have changed: Oklahoma is falling, and it is visiting a Tennessee team that is supposed to be on the rise, with a chance to finally be a player in the SEC race again. This year's battle could be a confirmation of all preseason perceptions. While losing would not be the end of the world for Oklahoma -- after all, Tennessee very well could be a contender -- we may quickly learn a lot about where this new-look Sooners team is headed.
Just don't be surprised if the trajectory is actually upward again. While it's impossible not to let our vision be clouded by what we saw late last season, the decline shouldn't be overstated, just as the rise shouldn't have been so overstated last year.