The sooners the better

by Thomas J. Hutchison | 10/20/00 5:00am

The beast has awoken. The sleeping monster that was Oklahoma football the last decade is back in full force. The Sooners, who were a dominant football program throughout the 1970s and '80s, sank to being mediocre and then downright horrible in the '90s. But this is a new decade, and Oklahoma is coming off back-to-back victories over top-10 teams (Texas and Kansas State) in which they put up over 100 points combined. Their victory over then second-ranked Kansas State catapulted them to number three and four in the AP and coaches polls, respectively. In the last two years the Sooners have gone from sub .500 to having a legitimate shot at a conference and possibly a national title. Following an off week, Oklahoma will play top ranked Nebraska in what is shaping up to be a classic. To what can this remarkable turnaround be attributed? For starters, one of the best young coaching staffs in the nation and a quarterback gunning for the Heisman Trophy.

Oklahoma had been one of college football's elite programs since the 1950s, winning six national titles and countless conference and bowl titles. The Sooners played option football, perfecting the Wishbone during the '70s and '80s. Former head coach Barry Switzer won three national titles and 11 Big-8 titles from 1972-1988, in addition to posting the third highest winning percentage ever. However, following NCAA probation and the controversy that followed, Switzer resigned. When Switzer left, "Sooner magic" -- the phrase he coined to describe OU's seeming invincibility -- went with him. The once-proud team went into a decade long funk. Three coaches in the '90s failed to achieve anything substantial.

Enter new head coach Bob Stoops. The former defensive coordinator for the Florida Gators and Kansas State Wildcats was the most sought after assistant coach in the nation, and was pursued by a number of top programs, including his alma mater, the University of Iowa. Oklahoma landed Stoops, who quickly put together a top staff that included his brother Mike as defensive coordinator. The Sooners turned it around in '99, posted a respectable 7-4 record, and went to the Independence Bowl. This year the Sooners have exceeded everyone's expectations, with a meteoric rise from number 19 in the pre-season AP poll to number three heading into next weeks Nebraska game.

These Sooners are not the run-first, pass-never team of old, however. Stoops hired Kentucky offensive coordinator Mike Leech in his first season; Leech installed the wide-open Kentucky offense and the Sooners haven't looked back since. Leech left following the '99 season to take over at Texas Tech, but the machine he set in motion kept rolling under new offensive guru Mark Mangino.

But the reason OU beat Texas 63-14 and K-State 41-31 is not simply the system. Quarterback Josh Heupel is tearing up the record books and opposing defenses at the same time. The senior from Aberdeen, S.D., transferred from Snow Valley Junior College following Stoops' arrival in Norman, and is making believers out of everyone. Heupel was the '99 Offensive Newcomer of the Year in the Big XII, and is playing even better this year. Just ask the K-State defense, which surrendered the most points at home since 1990. "He's a really calm quarterback," Kansas State defensive end Monty Beisel told reporters. "We tried getting to him, but he never changed his facial expression the whole game. They're real proud and they should be proud." Heupel stood in the pocket despite constant pressure and turned in an amazing performance, completing 29 of 37 passes for 374 yards and two TDs, which put him in the thick of the Heisman race and made pollsters aware that the Sooners are for real.

Following the Red River massacre, many in the national media suggested that Texas had been overrated and that Oklahoma was up for a strong dose of reality against a powerful Kansas State team. OU answered with a dominant performance that wasn't as close as the final score would suggest. "This is no upset," said Switzer, who was a guest on the sideline, after watching the Sooners -- a nine-point underdog -- snap Kansas State's 25-game home winning streak. "Oklahoma was the best football team."

When asked if he expected his team to score 41 points against a top-ranked defense like the Wildcats, Stoops was honest and confident: "We've scored a lot of points against a lot of teams. I never go in thinking we can't."

All of this leads into their most difficult challenge yet: Nebraska, ranked number one in both major polls. The game is at home for Oklahoma, but not since the 1987 game, in which the Huskers were ranked one and the Sooners were ranked two, has an OU-Nebraska showdown meant this much. Presuming Nebraska defeats hapless Baylor this weekend, the winner of the Cornhusker-Sooner showdown will be in the driver's seat to the Orange Bowl. The game will feature contrasting styles, the pass-happy Sooners versus the option-oriented Huskers. It will not be a game to miss.

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