The nature of offseason college football media has changed in the past few years. It used to be that the same teams would always find their names towards the preseason rankings, regardless of previous seasons. Recruiting rankings would be consistent and hype would be consistent. This led, for example, to the common trope in the 2000s that Notre Dame would start in the top five or ten each year even when they were poor the previous year. Sure, it’s an exaggeration, but the point stands that that was how preseason rankings worked.
It’s still true that the “brand name” teams are often overrated coming into the season. But that’s changing, and quickly. We can theorize as to why exactly preseason rankings in college football are starting to mimic, with minor changes, the ending rankings from the previous year, but the fact is that it’s happening. Presumably it has something to do with the constant national college football coverage even during the offseason, so last year’s accolades aren’t so quickly forgotten, but the reason why it’s happening is not as relevant as the fact that it is happening.
Case in point this year: Oklahoma. The Sooners are, without question, one of college football’s “blue bloods.” They are a team who is always in the spotlight even when they are not so good. And they were a popular pick to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff coming into last year. Why? They were a young team, a talented team, and were coming off a surprise victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
The 2014 Sooners season was disappointing to say the least. Oklahoma lost four games in conference and limped into the Russell Athletic Bowl, where a clearly-uncaring performance ended with a 40-6 walloping at the hands of the Clemson Tigers. There are, of course, no official preseason rankings yet, but most outlets have them ranked somewhere in the 20s in their offseason Top 25. ESPN actually left them off their “Too-Early Top 25” entirely.
Is there really so much difference about Oklahoma coming into 2015 than a year ago? Coming into last year, Trevor Knight was an often-injured unproven quantity who just had his breakout game where he showed what we all knew he was capable of. Knight did not take the expected steps forward in 2014 and Oklahoma struggled accordingly. He also was hurt against Baylor last year and there are still questions about how good he can be coming into this year. Knight did not impress in Oklahoma’s spring game and it’s not even guaranteed that he will be the starter this coming year.
Outside of quarterback, though, Oklahoma has a ton returning everywhere else. The Sooners had two offensive linemen drafted this year and Geneo Grissom and Jordan Phillips will be missed on defense. Still, Oklahoma always recruits the lines well and there are plenty of talented players waiting to step up and take their places.
Oklahoma also has tremendous talent returning all over the field. Samaje Perine set the NCAA Division I record for rushing yards in a game as a true freshman last year and only looks to get better. Sterling Sheppard and Durron Neal are both returning for their senior season and the pair of NFL-caliber receivers can help whoever is in at quarterback. Often, great quarterbacks will make their receivers better. But great receivers can also lift their quarterback’s level of play by making those hard passes just a little bit easier. Also, Eric Striker returns to lead the the stout defense once again.
If we look at Oklahoma last year, we should realize just how close they were to being the top team we expected in the preseason. Their first loss of the season was shocking and to then 25th ranked (ESPN and AP) TCU. The loss sent Oklahoma’s reputation for the season into a plummet. By year’s end, though, we realized that a four-point loss (on a blocked punt, no less) to TCU is pretty darn good. The loss to Kansas State two weeks later was, again, a very close loss to a good team. This Oklahoma team was just a few plays away from being 8-0 when they met Baylor.
Yes, Oklahoma could not match up with Baylor. The offense could not get on track in that game and the defense certainly had no answer for the Bears’ potent offensive attack. That was a game that Oklahoma loses nine times out of ten. The Sooners will need some extreme adjustments if they want to beat Baylor this year, but that’s a long way away. By the time Bedlam came around, a down-on-their luck Oklahoma team met a desperate Cowboys team that needed a miracle win just to earn bowl eligibility.
Certainly the way Oklahoma ended their season needs to be addressed. If the Sooners head into 2015 with the same attitude they approached the Russell Athletic Bowl, this is going to be a long season. But the schedule shapes up nicely for Oklahoma. A tune-up game against Akron is followed by a tough but definitely winnable nonconference game against Tennessee. After that, though, Oklahoma should be able to run the table until November, when they meet meet Baylor and TCU back-to-back. A three-game stretch of West Virginia-Texas-Kansas State will be tough but Oklahoma is more talented than all three of those teams.
Now, earning their way all the way back to the top four like everyone expected last year might be a little too much. The road to the Big XII title still goes through both Baylor and TCU. The Horned Frogs will be better than last year and Baylor is still a matchup nightmare for Oklahoma. The fact remains, though, that the Sooners are one of the most talented teams in the country and don’t let last year fool you. Sure, the breaks could go the same way as last year and we could see another 8-4 season in Norman. Or things could just as easily go the other way and Oklahoma could be 9-0 when they visit Baylor on November 14th. The point is, this team is on a razor-thin line between 8-4 and 11-1. They’re nothing near a guarantee for anything, but underestimate Oklahoma at your own risk.