For as much distress as he tends to induce among factions of the fanbase, you wouldn't think Josh Heupel has been a part of two of Oklahoma's best wins in the BCS era.
As a quarterback for the Sooners in 2000, he helped win a BCS National Championship over Florida State, 13-2. Heupel also finished the year as the Heisman Trophy runner-up to Seminoles quarterback Chris Weinke.
As the Sooners' co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Heupel orchestrated Oklahoma's best offensive effort of the season in a 45-31 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl Thursday night. The Sooners had a perfect plan to attack Alabama's weaknesses in the passing game and against tempo.
It also helps that redshirt freshman Trevor Knight had the best passing game of his young career, dropping dimes to his receivers down the field as part of a four-touchdown performance. Knight's development as a passer from Week 1 has made him a legitimate dual-threat, and Heupel should get credit for that.
The play-calling and player development was all vindication for an embattled assistant whose job status has, understandably, been called into question.
It took most of the season for Oklahoma to find its rhythm on offense. Injuries to Knight and fellow quarterback Blake Bell created a revolving door at the position, and perhaps as a result, the Sooners didn't have much of an identity. Were they a power running offense, a zone-read/option offense or an Air Raid offense?
It was never abundantly clear because Oklahoma dabbled in all of it, none of which was effective. And, looking back, Oklahoma's refusal to use Knight against Texas, a team that struggled against mobile quarterbacks, is all the more perplexing. Texas beat the Sooners 36-20.
But the lowlight of the offensive struggles came on Nov. 7, when the Sooners posted a season-low 12 points in a 41-12 loss to Baylor. Three days later, John Hoover of the Tulsa World opined that it was time for Heupel to concentrate solely on one aspect of his job and leave the other to someone else.
Again, Heupel is a terrific quarterbacks coach. And he may someday be an equally terrific offensive coordinator, or maybe even head coach.
It's just that right now, in this offense, with these players, he can't do both. And both Oklahoma's quarterbacks and its play-calling are suffering the consequences.
2013 was going to be a year of offensive growing pains anyway. For all the heat former starting quarterback Landry Jones took for his "Good Landry" and "Bad Landry" inconsistencies, he still won more games (40) than any other quarterback in school history. He also finished as Oklahoma's all-time passing leader in yards (16,646) and touchdowns (123.) Replacing that kind of production was going to be challenging.
Yet, Heupel has had the support of his peers and bosses. Fellow co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Jay Norvell, a former play-caller himself, told The Oklahoman in October, “The thing about play-calling is that everybody who watches a football game thinks they can call plays, and it's really not that easy.”
No reasonable person should believe that play-calling is easy, but there is an expectation that it highlights the personnel in the game and attacks an opponent's weaknesses. It wasn't until Knight returned to the field in November from a knee injury that things began to come together offensively for Oklahoma.
Against Alabama, the offense clicked in a way it hadn't all year, and there was nothing the Tide could do to stop it. If nothing else, it will make the offseason far more bearable than last year's, which followed a 41-13 loss to Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
However, sweeping conclusions can be made from bowl games, which is dangerous because no team is the same from one season to the next. Thursday's Sugar Bowl win doesn't instantly make Heupel an elite offensive coordinator or guarantee his job security for the long haul.
But it does come at an opportune time that forces critics to admit that, yeah, he did a good job.
Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for Big 12 football. You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenKercheval.
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