There are essentially four stages of the extremely long college football offseason. There's recruiting, which ended in early February. There's spring practice, which ended Saturday. (Halfway point!) Later, we get into the preseason, once conference media days start rolling in July. But now, for the next two months or so, when we're not passing time making jokes about stolen crab legs or other assorted nonsense that tends to happen in this sport, the deadest time of the offseason boils down to "preview magazine season," because we need to talk about something.
So let's get ready to fill time by dissecting the Oklahoma Sooners.
It has started already, and nobody should be surprised. Teams that pull off an upset in a major bowl and return their starting quarterback always get talked up as contenders in the offseason. It happened last year, when Louisville beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl and opened 2013 ranked No. 9 in the USA TODAY coaches' poll; it happened the year before when West Virginia put up 70 on Clemson in the Orange Bowl and opened 2012 ranked No. 11. This year, it's been obvious ever since the Sugar Bowl, again, that Oklahoma would get a strong offseason push after it took down Alabama. Already, Sporting News has taken the top-five hype a step further and named Oklahoma No. 1 in its upcoming annual preseason guide. There will probably be others who follow suit, or at least come close to doing the same, and Oklahoma will undoubtedly be one of the most polarizing teams in the run-up to the 2014 season as we figure out whether it's worthy of the hype or has quickly become overrated because of a single performance in a glorified exhibition game.
Believing in Oklahoma as a frontrunner for a College Football Playoff spot mostly relies on taking a leap of faith in quarterback Trevor Knight. A year ago, nobody expected him to win the Sooners' starting job, which seemed "open" if only to serve as some sort of motivational ploy for Blake Bell, who had shined in his short-yardage running Belldozer role and appeared ready to inherit the full-time gig. But Knight, then a redshirt freshman, dazzled in the offseason and won the job, relegating Bell, temporarily, to the supporting role he played the previous two seasons behind Landry Jones. Knight went 11-of-28 in his debut against Louisiana-Monroe, then 10-of-20 the next week against West Virginia, a game in which he suffered a bruised knee. He threw only one pass the next seven games, severely stunting his growth as Bell took back the starting job. Knight ran for 123 yards against Iowa State, then went 14-of-20 for 171 yards in place of the injured Bell against Kansas State, then hurt his hand and missed the second half against Oklahoma State in the regular season finale.
Oklahoma's quarterback future appeared as unsettled as ever, with nothing solved over the course of a 12-game season. Through three and a half months of injuries and middling play, we learned almost nothing about Knight, seeing little indication for why he won the job in the offseason.
And then Alabama happened. After a couple weeks of extra practices leading into the bowl, Knight went 32-of-44 for 348 yards and four touchdowns with one pick in the face of low expectations at the Superdome against the Crimson Tide, who had allowed 200 passing yards only three times in their first 12 games. With one magnificent performance in a high-profile game against an acclaimed team, Knight once again became the next big thing instead of a relative afterthought. He's only a sophomore entering 2014, and the show he put on against Alabama felt like belated validation of the faith Bob Stoops and his staff put in him before the season began. Only in the waning hours of Jan. 2 did we fully understand what had happened in August, and what might be possible moving forward.
What we do know about Oklahoma now is that it should be able to control the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball. While losing All-America center Gabe Ikard hurts, the other four starters along the offensive line are back. On defense, the entire front is loaded, with two of the Big 12's best ends in Charles Tapper and Chuka Ndulue, the return of defensive tackle Jordan Phillips from season-ending back surgery last October and the versatile presence of do-it-all edge rusher Eric Striker, who has the size of a defensive back but emerged as the "joker" type player of the Sooners defense, capable of attacking the backfield from anywhere. He led the team with six and a half sacks and forced the AJ McCarron fumble that was returned for a touchdown to clinch the Sugar Bowl, and he enters 2014 as one of the most disruptive defenders in the nation. That disruptive ability up front makes the issues in the secondary -- where top corner Aaron Colvin is gone -- easier to swallow, just as the return of a veteran offensive line makes the transition easier for Knight with a new skill-position supporting cast, aside from wideout Sterling Shepard.
This is where the Louisville/West Virginia comparison isn't fair. Oklahoma has built up greater long-term cachet than those programs, it recruits better players and it's right at home in the top five. Ranking Oklahoma so high is hardly unusual; in fact, under Bob Stoops, it's unusual for Oklahoma not to start in the top 10. Not that a couple national championship appearances last decade should matter now. But while there have been times where the talent level at Oklahoma appears to have dropped significantly from those glory days -- see the Texas game last October, and the loss at Baylor too -- and it is definitely not in the same category as 10 years ago, this is still a program capable of reloading pretty quickly, especially with a promising quarterback and two good lines. Just because OU hasn't contended for a national title in a little while now doesn't mean Stoops doesn't continue to recruit well to Norman. It's not the easiest sell, because of the lack of top prep talent actually in the state of Oklahoma, but Stoops consistently rattles off top-15 class after top-15 class, and that talent shows entering 2014.
So whether it's Keith Ford or Alex Ross emerging in the backfield (or perhaps incoming freshman Joe Mixon) as the lead runner, and whoever emerges to complement Shepard in the receiving corps, it's not exactly going out on a limb to predict big-time success for Oklahoma. The last several years have been a step down from the previous decade, with a handful of high-profile embarrassments -- again, Texas last year, but also the previous season's Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M, the preseason No. 1 ranking in 2011 that saw Oklahoma end up in the Insight Bowl, the 8-5 record in 2009 -- but that doesn't mean Oklahoma was that far away from being a contender. Bumps in the road happen, especially given how much turnover Stoops has experienced on his coaching staff because of the success. Oklahoma may have slipped a bit, but the work of art it put together in the Sugar Bowl was a reminder of what the Stoops/Oklahoma combination is capable of doing, even this far into the partnership, and perhaps most of all, it was a boost of confidence for offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, who's play-calling has been often criticized.
Oklahoma scored its biggest win in several years, despite playing without four its most important players, three of whom it would have been saying goodbye to anyway in 2014 as seniors: running back Damien Williams (dismissed), fullback Trey Millard (injured), defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (injured) and linebacker Corey Nelson (injured). So not only did Oklahoma beat Alabama by two touchdowns, but it did so shorthanded, with a team that wasn't anywhere close to invincible even before that unexpected attrition of key starters.
In losing Ikard, Colvin, receiver Jalen Saunders and running backs Brennan Clay and Roy Finch, the list of important departures only gets longer, and the Oklahoma team we'll see at the beginning of 2014 is drastically different than the one that we thought we'd see last year. But although we should never invest too heavily -- or at all -- in bowl results, with Knight healthy and firmly entrenched in the starting role (Bell has moved to tight end), it feels like Oklahoma suddenly has come together as a viable contender, and it has the favorable schedule (the five road games are Tulsa, West Virginia, TCU, Iowa State and Texas Tech) to build on that somewhat quiet 10-2 regular season of last year.
Does that mean Oklahoma should be ranked ahead of Florida State heading into the season? Probably not, and maybe not ahead of Oregon, Auburn, Ohio State and, yes, even Alabama too. But it hardly takes a leap of faith to move Oklahoma into the preseason top five; it just takes a lot of confidence in the ability of Knight to turn one breakout game into consistently good quarterback play. We've certainly seens signs of the talent, so with greater health and stability in his second year, it's not a bad bet.