The 2014 Preseason Amway Coaches Poll was released Thursday afternoon, and listed at No. 3—directly above the Pac-12 favorite (Oregon) and the reigning national runner-up (Auburn)—sat Bob Stoops' Oklahoma Sooners.
This is not altogether surprising given how OU finished last season. The Sooners snuck into the Sugar Bowl after beating Oklahoma State in Bedlam, and despite entering as heavy underdogs, they took down an Alabama team that some still considered the best in the country.
Did the Crimson Tide bring their A-game to New Orleans? It's debatable. Nick Saban said he had trouble motivating his team to "play in a consolation game," per Brett McMurphy of ESPN.com, but the energy it played with against Oklahoma suggested otherwise. That was not a team that looked like it was sleepwalking.
Still, there's a reason Oklahoma had to sneak into the Sugar Bowl in the first place. Its full, 13-game sample from 2013 was not that of a team that should debut at No. 3 the following season, and it definitely wasn't that of a team that warrants three first-place votes.
Coaches poll 1st place votes: FSU 56, OU 3, Oregon, Ohio State & South Carolina 1 each. Bama, ranked 2nd, had none— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 31, 2014
Oklahoma has the defense of a top-three team and national title contender. Outside linebacker Eric Striker made a name for himself with three sacks against Alabama, Charles Tapper is a force along the defensive line, inside linebacker Frank Shannon is the top returning tackler in the Big 12 and Zack Sanchez heads a talented secondary after making last year's FWAA Freshman All-America team.
Oklahoma's offense, however, is a major work in progress. It has the most offensive questions of any team in the top five and arguably even the top 10 (depending on how you feel about Michigan State).
The crux of those questions is quarterback Trevor Knight, a redshirt sophomore who starred in the win over Alabama. Before that, though, he had his ups and downs, oscillating in and out of the lineup with newly converted tight end Blake Bell.
On the whole, Knight threw only 134 passes last season. He had just 1,264 total yards (455 coming on the ground). Compare this with the four quarterbacks whose teams are directly behind Oklahoma:
|Total Yards||Total TD:INT||Total QBR||QBR Rank|
|Trevor Knight (OU)||1,264||11:5||73.1||33*|
|Marcus Mariota (ORE)||4,380||40:4||88.0||2|
|Nick Marshall (AUB)||3,044||26:6||81.9||12|
|Braxton Miller (OSU)||3,162||36:7||81.3||13|
|Brett Hundley (UCLA)||3,819||35:9||82.3||11|
Source: cfbstats.com / ESPN
*Note: Knight did not take enough snaps to qualify for the official Total QBR Rankings at ESPN.com, but this is where his score would have placed.
Football is the consummate team sport.
Quarterback play is not the only thing that matters, but it is, in many cases, the thing that matters most. Knight has only played two good games in his career (the other coming against Kansas State), and this year he loses his two leading rushers, Brennan Clay and Damien Williams, along with his leading receiver, Jalen Saunders.
Would you really take OU over Marcus Mariota's Ducks, Nick Marshall's Tigers, Braxton Miller's Buckeyes or Brett Hundley's Bruins on a neutral field? Are we sure Knight can be trusted to keep up?
Of course, Knight could easily prove all this skepticism wrong. The physical tools are there for him to do so (remember, he showed well as the scout team's version of Johnny Manziel before the 2013 Cotton Bowl). It just seems like people are chugging his Kool-Aid instead of sipping it…and that's an easy way to end up with a brain freeze.
Even FoxSports.com's David Ubben, who covers the Big 12 primarily, admitted that the Sooners seem over-ranked:
Where Big 12 teams SHOULD be ranked: OU: 8-11. Baylor 9-13. K-State 17-22. Wouldn't begrudge somebody for voting OSU or Tech.— David Ubben (@davidubben) July 31, 2014
The best thing Oklahoma has going for it this season is its defense, which should give it a chance to win any game, no matter how Knight and the offense fare. But a close second to the defense is the schedule, which sets the team up well to win the conference.
Of the three other Big 12 teams that were ranked in the coaches poll—No. 10 Baylor, No. 21 Kansas State and No. 24 Texas—two come to Norman and one, Texas, will play the Sooners on a neutral field. Texas Tech and…um…TCU, I guess, are the biggest road-game threats.
Because of that schedule, and because they are a legitimate top-10 team, Oklahoma should be considered a favorite to make the College Football Playoff. It has a good chance to finish the season in the top four created by the CFP selection committee.
But this poll is not supposed to be a ranking of teams that are likely to make the playoff; it's supposed to be a ranking of the best teams in order. Placing OU at No. 3 seems like a conflation of the two.
ESPN host Dari Nowkhah helps explain the difference:
I think OU makes the playoff... But that doesn't mean they are the third best team in the nation. It means they are set up perfectly.— Dari Nowkhah (@ESPNDari) July 31, 2014
The fact of the matter is this: Oklahoma was very good, but not great, during the lion's share of last season. It was very nearly great—but still not quite there—against Oklahoma State, and then it played one truly great game against Alabama.
That it finished the season on an upward trajectory and returns nine defensive starters is important; faring well in December/January and maintaining continuity is a proven recipe for offseason hype. It plays to all of our most overreaction-prone tendencies.
But let's not forget that Oklahoma was lucky in those final games, too. Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall harped on this point in his preview of the Sooners, saying he "can't get past" the fact that OU recovered all nine fumbles during the last three games of its season.
Recovering a fumble is "almost entirely random," as Football Outsiders puts it, so even recovering five or six of nine is considered lucky. Recovering nine of nine is considered very lucky, and Connelly explains why we should be wary of Oklahoma because of it:
If Oklahoma had recovered only six of those nine fumbles, it might have cost the Sooners one of the last three games. Recover only three of those nine, and they probably lose two of three without changing any other aspect of their performance. Yes, they won each of those games by more than one possession. But on a per-play basis, they were outgained in each one -- 7.3 to 6.5 against KSU, 5.7 per play to 4.9 against OSU, and a whopping 7.9 to 5.8 against Alabama.…
If Oklahoma doesn't benefit from epic fumbles luck in the last three games of the season, then heading into the 2014 season, we're looking at them as a solid team. They're definitely ranked in the preseason, perhaps in the No. 15-20 range. We're definitely talking about their strong offensive line, their great sack rates, their potentially excellent secondary, and maybe their potential-heavy sophomore quarterback.
But we would also be talking about their wholly mediocre run defense and the fact that they must replace virtually every skill position weapon. The limitations they showed in blowout losses to Baylor (understandable) and Texas (not so much) would be the focus of our attention. But in part because of nine fumble recoveries, they're supposed to be a national title contender. It's hard for me to buy that.
The coaches poll matters even less in the post-BCS era than it did in the previous almost-decade (when it was used as an element of the BCS formula). No matter where Oklahoma—or any other team from a power-five conference—got ranked Thursday afternoon, how it plays on the field will be the thing that defines its season.
Not where it starts in the polls.
Still, it feels wrong to see the Sooners above Oregon and Auburn when they'd probably be underdogs against them on a neutral field.
Isn't that technically what these rankings should reflect?
Hopefully, all will go according to plan, and OU and Oregon can settle this dispute on the field. Before that, though, the Sooners have to prove they've fixed the problems—inconsistent quarterback play, run defense, etc.—that cost them the Big 12 last season.
The proving process starts against Louisiana Tech on August 30.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT