In the summer of 2000, months before Oklahoma won the national title following years of mediocrity, Barry Switzer correctly predicted the parallel rises of Texas, under Mack Brown, and Oklahoma, under Bob Stoops, telling Sports Illustrated, "Oklahoma and Texas will dominate the Big 12 South. Bobby Stoops has gotten everything pointed upward in Norman. You watch the guy work, and it's obvious he's got a plan."
Switzer was mostly right. Since then, more often than not, Texas-Oklahoma has played a significant role in shaping the BCS picture. Between them, they've won two national titles, appeared in four more title games (three by Oklahoma) and won two Heismans (both by Oklahoma), in addition to winning the league's automatic BCS bid nine out of 14 times (seven by Oklahoma).
On Saturday, Oklahoma meets Texas at the Cotton Bowl in the 108th edition of the Red River Rivalry, and it will likely put an end to this era. It seems nothing could possibly save Brown's job at this point and Oklahoma has been largely responsible for shifting public opinion against him over the past few years, beating the Longhorns by a combined score of 146-58 during OU's current three-game winning streak.
Now, Oklahoma, which has won nine of 14 Stoops-Brown matchups, can be responsible for the proverbial final nail in the coffin with another dominant win, because in the long run, Stoops' plans have successfully out-maneuvered Brown. As the two biggest stories of the Big 12 season play out around the fall of Texas and the rise of Baylor, one story lingers, under the radar, yet as prominent as ever: Bob Stoops and Oklahoma, still on top of the league.
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Despite their relatively similar success over the years, it's undoubtedly more difficult to win at Oklahoma. If both jobs were to open tomorrow, there's no question most coaches would see the Texas job as more desirable. Oklahoma is more like Tennessee: a historic power in a state that doesn't necessarily produce enough elite high school talent to fuel a national contender. To succeed, each team has to secure the best in-state talent, yes, but that's not enough. The job also requires going into enemy territory and uprooting more talented athletes -- whether it's Oklahoma, from the state of Texas; or Tennessee, from Florida, Georgia and the Gulf Coast.
Texas is the flagship university of the most famously talent-rich state in the country; it has only two players from the state of Oklahoma on its entire roster. In contrast, Oklahoma has 45 players from the state Texas (17 more than it has from Oklahoma). Fail to adequately steal recruits from rivals' home states or fail to adapt to the talent you're able to convince to come to Norman or Knoxville, and it's quite easy for a national power like the Sooners or Volunteers to fall into a rut.
Oklahoma's success under Stoops is a story of adapting, of trying to stay ahead of a fall, of keeping pace with its neighbor down in Austin. In 2013 that story has come full circle. Whereas once Oklahoma led the charge in bringing up-tempo, high-scoring offenses to the Big 12, it's now started 5-0 this season by dragging the Big 12 back toward the 20th century, changing the conversation about the conference (OK, the non-Baylor conversation) -- while also allowing Stoops to unabashedly take shots at the SEC's shift in the opposite direction.
At first, nobody melded wide-open, up-tempo passing with effectively aggressive defense better than Stoops. It was called a gimmick elsewhere, but not necessarily at Oklahoma because the defense rose to a similar level. Then, the passing prowess of Josh Heupel and Jason White gave way to the running of Adrian Peterson -- in 2006, Oklahoma won the Big 12 title and finished 11-3 despite finishing 70th nationally in passing -- which gave way back to the passing of Sam Bradford and Landry Jones, which gave way to the current team that appears to favor running the spread out of the pistol formation, often with a fullback.
Maybe it doesn't look so different at first glance. Oklahoma is still spreading the field, four- and even five-wide. The Sooners are, again, winning a lot of games, like they've done since Stoops arrived in 1999. But Stoops has survived an endless parade of departures by his assistants -- from Brent Venables and Bo Pelini, among others, on defense, to Mike Leach, Mark Mangino, Chuck Long and Kevin Sumlin, among others, on offense. And, this year, he does not have a typical NFL quarterback like Bradford or Jones; and he does not have a timing-and-rhythm college star like White.
Instead, he has a 6-foot-6, 252-pound power running behemoth in Blake Bell, along with a bigger offensive line and an athletic defense that swarms to the ball. Instead of setting scoring records, like in 2008, Oklahoma has scored a total of six offensive touchdowns in wins over West Virginia, Notre Dame and TCU. Instead of running more plays than anyone, the Sooners are playing more cautiously, because that's what is required of the talent at hand.
Bell is the power-running quarterback who avoids mistakes; Damien Williams and Brennan Clay the big-play running backs; Trey Millard the hybrid fullback/tight end and Gabe Ikard the blocking anchor who holds it all together.
They can succeed with those roles because Stoops and his brother, coordinator Mike Stoops, have capitalized on the young talent they have available on defense -- like undersized but speedy linebacker Eric Striker and defensive end Charles Tapper -- to craft an athletic, versatile 3-3-5 scheme that's giving up only 13 points per game and didn't allow TCU to pick up a first down in the entire first half of last Saturday's 20-17 Oklahoma win.
Thus, instead of looking like a team that belongs in the offense-first Big 12 he helped create, Stoops' 2013 method of winning might look more at home in the SEC West of the past decade.
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Many of the most prominent coaches since the turn of the century have been tied to strict identities, and they recruit players that fit those identities. Nick Saban plays a rigid, machine-like brand of power football. Les Miles plays a similar brand, only with a dose of unpredictability and actual joy for the game. Sweater-vest sporting Jim Tressel was unfailingly conservative. Pete Carroll mixed the NFL with his laid-back persona. Urban Meyer popularized the spread option. Chip Kelly moved at a blinding pace. Mike Leach embraced his status as an outcast, spread the field and posted previously unheard of passing numbers.
Bob Stoops, despite winning eight Big 12 titles, has become most known for … the big bowl games he lost?
Maybe he hasn't been an innovator, and there is no specific trademark that everyone can point to. That's because Stoops has adapted to most any situation he's been in over the past two decades to become one of the most successful coaches in college football at a national power that has some inherent disadvantages.
There was a time when Brown's Texas staff was innovative, when coaches from Penn State, for example, would visit to learn how to effectively use Michael Robinson like Vince Young. Nobody in their right mind would be visiting Texas for new ideas now. Meanwhile, Stoops has spent most of the last 15 seasons successfully staying above water at a school with expectations that exceed what might be deemed reasonable. Dominating the Red River Rivalry once helped Oklahoma draw top recruits from the state of Texas -- most notably Peterson -- and the current state of the rivalry can help it do the same.
So, we've reached the last season of the BCS, an era in which Oklahoma-Texas was the defining rivalry. With Brown likely out along with the BCS, a chapter is closing. And perhaps better than anyone since Bud Wilkinson in the 1950s, Stoops has figured out how to make Oklahoma win not just a game over its more pampered nemesis, but, ultimately, an entire era.
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