NEW ORLEANS -- It's so easy for things to go stale. It can happen in any field; it certainly happens in football coaching. Stick around long enough, go through enough assistant coach turnover, and ideas start to get worn out, people get complacent, and suddenly what was once a happy marriage becomes restless.
Bob Stoops has been at Oklahoma forever, by modern college football standards, leading the Sooners since 1999. His name always gets brought up for various coaching vacancies, including whispers about the Cleveland Browns this time around. And yet Thursday night at the Sugar Bowl, a shocking 45-31 win over Alabama, felt like the Bob Stoops-Oklahoma marriage getting its second wind.
By no means has Oklahoma under Stoops ever gone bad, but the particular reputation has become good but not quite good enough, seasons often ending in disappointing bowl losses -- the LSU championship loss in 2003, the blowout championship loss to USC in 2004, back-to-back Fiesta Bowl losses, a loss to Florida in the 2008 championship, last year's Cotton Bowl debacle against Johnny Manziel. Yet here Oklahoma was at the Superdome, after weeks of being dismissed as vastly inferior to Alabama, and the Sooners were simply better than the Crimson Tide, something that has rarely been said about anyone over the last several years.
Most notably, Bob Stoops wiped the field with Nick Saban.
"I want to say it in an absolutely humble way," Stoops said. "We weren't coming in on a load of wood. We've won some games around here … Whether you felt that way or not, or anyone else, we weren't really concerned about. We played how we expected to play, to be quite honest. And, again, you've heard me start off by I've got the absolute utmost respect for Alabama. But we have a lot of confidence in what we do, too.
"And so with as many young players as we have and inexperience we came into the season to start with and the guys we have coming back to recruiting class we've got coming in, we've got a chance to really start, to continue to be special, and that's what we're going to keep trying to do."
The Sooners finished the regular season 10-2 with yet another win over rival Oklahoma State, thus causing a major shift in the Big 12 bowl picture, but they marched through 2013 inconsistent in all phases of the game and plagued by some key injuries to top players, including linebacker Corey Nelson and versatile fullback Trey Millard. They could not find a steady quarterback, either, because of injuries and erratic play, even beating Oklahoma State with a combination of three. Most notably, they were easily handled by an embattled Texas team.
The couple weeks of bowl practice always present an opportunity for a team to grow a bit, to try something new and get younger players involved. Alabama certainly did that with running back Derrick Henry. But for as much as Henry appeared to take over the game, the night belonged to Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight, who hadn't completed more than 14 passes in a game previously but went 32 of 44 for 348 yards and four touchdowns, and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, who was the punching bag of the season in Norman.
As always, there's a lot of danger in over-emphasizing a bowl win, and Oklahoma is an obvious candidate to be over-ranked next season because of this. But the offense at least showed what it finally can be behind Knight, who is still only a freshman with limited starting experience. He played the game of his life, sure, but Oklahoma wisely pushed the tempo and kept Alabama off-balance, and thus the Sooners enter 2014 with a bit more confidence in the potential of offense under Knight and Heupel, as well as a defense that wreaked havoc in the Crimson Tide backfield and is capable of creatively applying pressure.
Knight has a lot of room to grow, but Thursday served as an idealized version of what Stoops would surely like the future to be.
"We never were in a position where the outside world tried to portray us however many weeks ago," Stoops said. "That wasn't us. So this isn't going to change us. These guys and us in the locker room, you see them nodding their head, we know who we are. These guys held it together. No one flinched. Everybody kept improving.
"From time to time, in different years, the more inexperience you have, the more injuries you have, you're going to have some ups and downs. You're not going to go through undefeated every time."
Alabama knows that lesson well by now, and Oklahoma certainly knows it too. But this was the sort of win that does start shifting perceptions and attitudes a bit. Stoops was always partially correct in saying the gap between the SEC and the rest of America was somewhat overblown, and now he's backed it up on the field.
The SEC still reigns supreme, of course, but Stoops' confident backing of both his school and his conference, and the aggressive show the Sooners put on against Alabama serve as a reminder that there is nothing complacent going on at Oklahoma at all. Fifteen years into the job, Stoops, perhaps the most consistently solid coach over the era, is still capable of putting together a masterpiece.