NORMAN — It was just one victory, but Oklahoma fully understood its Sugar Bowl victory would carry future positive ramifications.
No longer would OU coach Bob Stoops have to spend an offseason answering questions about the state of the program. Players wouldn’t have to talk about a talent gap any longer. The Sooners, who cherished the opportunity to play like underdogs late in the season, wouldn’t have that card to play any longer.
The way the Sooners closed 2013 means all the historical expectations for the program are back on the table for the 2014 season. A Big 12 Conference title is at the top of the list. Of course, if you’re going to win that, you might as well win a national championship, too.
Such expectations are not out of bounds. Fifteen of the starters from the Sugar Bowl victory will be back next season, including nine on defense and quarterback Trevor Knight.
“When you’re at practices every day and scrimmages every day and everything that we do, we very much know what he’s capable of,” Stoops said. “Now everyone has had a chance to see.”
The way Knight played over the final four games, but especially at the Sugar Bowl, offers every indication that he gives the offense something to build around.
This past season was a transitional one in many ways for OU. It has spent the last two recruiting classes building to take advantage of a mobile quarterback. OU’s has bulked up its offensive linemen, sought more between-the-tackles running backs and brought in bigger wide receivers to run the ball better and better to set up play-action passing opportunities.
Look for that evolution to continue next season.
Knight’s ability to pass from the pocket against Alabama was a game-changer. He didn’t appear comfortable doing that early in the season or in his starts against Kansas State and Oklahoma State late in the year.
Against the Crimson Tide he was. That allowed the Sooners to spread the ball around in ways it hadn’t earlier in the year.
“Moving forward from that, you know, going into next year and everything, that’s what we’re going to ride on,” Knight said.
The defense went through bigger alterations with its shift to a 3-4 alignment after spending all of Stoops’ previous tenure in a 4-3.
The Sooners held well enough despite losing nose guard Jordan Phillips early in the season. With him coming back next year, OU’s defensive line will be as deep as it has ever been.
“I don’t care if he does anything in the spring. He’s gonna be back,” Stoops said. “Let’s face it: starting the year he was our best guy and he’ll be back and better than ever. It’s gonna help.”
Defense is where the biggest move was made in 2013. One of the reasons the Sooners’ slowed down the tempo of their offense this season was so the defense could get its feet under itself. It hadn’t finished in the top 40 in total defense since 2009, but it will bring 10 starters back from a unit that finished inside the top 20 this season.
A lot of those starters, like linebackers Eric Striker, Dominique Alexander and cornerback Zack Sanchez, defensive end Charles Tapper and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and Jordan Wade were either freshmen or sophomores.
The Sooners are going to be physically and mentally better next season.
The Sugar Bowl payoffs have extended to the recruiting trail. Since topping Alabama, OU has seen a recruiting uptick. Landing five-star California running back Joe Mixon was a huge boost. But it had a lot of recruits in over the weekend for official visits and will do the same next weekend.
The Sooners have a lot of very positive things to sell and more buyers, too.
“Obviously … we play with anybody. This is our down year, according to everybody, and we went to the Sugar Bowl and beat Alabama, a team that’s been No. 1 in the country for three years,” Stoops said. “How bad could it be?”
Not bad at all. Everything about OU football seems to be on a positive swing. It’s going to enter 2014 as the prohibitive favorite and a favorite to get a spot in the college football playoff next season.
“We’ve got a very bright future,” Stoops said.
Whether or not OU ever lost its status as an elite program is up for debate. It has won 31 games over the last three seasons. Not many can top that.
But it’s clearly riding a little higher than it has in past years. With all that it has coming back in 2014, OU has earned that designation.
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