Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is more fun when he's feisty Bob Stoops.
And Stoops has been more outspoken—snarky, if you will—lately. He has every reason to be. He and his team are still buzzing from their Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama—a program-boosting win no matter who you are—and were picked to win the Big 12 by the media.
With the two hardest conference games at home—against Baylor and Kansas State—the Sooners have a favorable schedule. No Big 12 team has made it to the national championship game since Texas did so in 2009. Since moving to a nine-game, round-robin schedule, no team has gone through conference play unscathed.
Can this be the year Oklahoma breaks the trend? The more important question is whether the Sooners can get to the first College Football Playoff. With four spots to be filled by five conferences, there's a lot at stake. It's not known yet whether the Big 12's lack of a conference championship game will help or hinder it in the playoff era. Chances are, it'll do both at some point.
The Sooners are an early favorite regardless. Phil Steele has Oklahoma making it to a semifinal of the playoff, losing to Florida State.
So, life is good for Stoops and Co. right now, and media members are there to scoop up the dripping confidence.
Stoops was more reserved during conference media days, but he opened up during ESPN's car wash, taking jabs at Alabama coach Nick Saban and Texas A&M's non-conference schedule.
It's all in good fun, but Oklahoma's momentum, the sudden (don't call it a) comeback of "Big Game Bob," almost didn't happen.
The Sooners needed a last-minute touchdown to beat Oklahoma State 33-24 in the season-ending Bedlam game. If Oklahoma finished the season 9-3 instead of 10-2, it would have been passed over for a Sugar Bowl appearance altogether. No Sugar Bowl, no recruiting bump, according to Stoops.
"In the end we were fortunate that we were able to build, finish recruiting in a really positive way," Stoops said during media days. "I think that really did give us a boost in the last week or two of recruiting."
The Sooners closed hard, landing eight commitments in the final weeks before national signing day in February. That gave Oklahoma the top class in the Big 12 and the No. 14 class nationally, according to 247Sports' composite rankings.
Bob Pryzbylo of Sooner Illustrated explained the recruiting impact of the Sugar Bowl to Alex Apple of The Dallas Morning News:
The Sooners were right on the cusp with a number of top recruits before the upset win against Alabama. All that win did, according to the coaches, was reaffirm to the recruits that OU is the place to be…And boy did it ever. OU landed eight signees from Jan. 4 until Wednesday, giving the Sooners a 2014 class of 26 signees and the No. 1-ranked class in Scout’s Big 12 rankings and No. 13 overall.
It also gave the Sooners locker room a boost.
"And then it also, I think, as much as anything, inspired our players to really build on it in the winter in the way we trained, the way we went into spring." Stoops said. "We had a fabulous summer. One of the best."
Perhaps no other player has felt the impact of the post-bowl momentum like quarterback Trevor Knight, who threw for four touchdowns in the win over the Crimson Tide. The second-year starter is already getting Heisman attention from OddsShark.com—albeit long-shot odds at 25-1.
"We definitely rode that momentum after the win," Knight said. "It's the foundation for this season. But, at the same time, we're not complacent."
This team can't afford to be. The 2013 Sooners, which featured many of this year's returning starters, were far from Stoops' best team. Twice, in losses against Texas and Baylor, Oklahoma got outclassed. It happened in 2012, too, when Oklahoma got pummeled by Notre Dame early in the season and Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
The year before that, the Sooners lost at home to Texas Tech, which would lose every remaining game that year, and got blasted by Oklahoma State, 44-10.
Those types of losses didn't traditionally happen under Stoops. It was fair to wonder if "Big Game Bob" was starting to lose his edge—even if only a little.
The Sugar Bowl showed that nothing could be further from the truth. As Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman wrote, Stoops is now back among the fraternity of coaches viewed as the best in college football:
Coaches at places like Oklahoma go through changing status. Mostly, what’s-he-done-for-us-lately, followed by he-can-do-no-wrong. Stoops is in one of the latter phases now, so it’s In Bob We Trust.
From the players' point of view, nothing changed about Stoops. "He's the same every day," said defensive end/linebacker Geneo Grissom.
How things looked in practice didn't change either. When asked at what point the offense clicked last season, offensive lineman Daryl Williams said, "I don't know. We saw it in practice every day. There wasn't really a moment."
The tape tells a slightly different story. When Knight returned from his knee injury against Iowa State on Nov. 16, he looked like a better player than the one who tossed two interceptions against West Virginia in Week 2, completing an efficient 8-of-14 passes.
But it was just Iowa State, right? The following week in a win over Kansas State, a team playing as well as anyone at the time, Oklahoma's offense put up 301 yards rushing in a 41-31 win.
When the Sooners found out they were headed to the Sugar Bowl, they knew they could hang with the defending national champions. The team was talented enough, but more importantly, Oklahoma had a coaching staff that did its best job in years preparing for a game.
Call it a fluke if you must, but Oklahoma put together a better game plan than Alabama. Now, the players and coaches are seeing the benefits. The only difference within the program now is that they have some extra confidence to exude.
And there's nothing wrong with living it up.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.
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