— It’s on you, OU.
The Big 12 South, which was praised as effusively and extensively this autumn as Tina Fey, suddenly has its naysayers. Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, each of whom appeared in the top 10 most of the season, lost their respective bowls to opponents (Oregon and Mississippi) that never cracked the top 10. Texas, which had as legitimate a claim to be in the BCS Championship Game as anyone, needed every last centimeter on a 4th-down play in the final two minutes of the Fiesta Bowl to defeat heavy underdog Ohio State.
In a little more than a week, the stock of this lower-half (geographically), upper-crust division of the Big 12 has fallen as precipitously as if it were actually stock.
But on Thursday night in Miami, Oklahoma has an opportunity to validate every verbal bouquet tossed the Big 12’s direction this season. The Sooners, losers themselves of four consecutive BCS bowls and no strangers to the “Over-rated!” chant, take on a Florida squad that is as fast and deep as anyone in the nation. And that might as well be playing a home game.
Oklahoma has a chance to do more than simply win a national championship. The Sooners can also demonstrate to all of us so-called arbiters of gridiron worthiness that we are not utter and abject fools (though we all know the answer to that one, now don’t we?).
Perhaps we were turned on by the dazzle.
Three different Big 12 South schools — Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech — were ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 at some point this season. A fourth, Oklahoma State, was often hovering around the No. 10 position, and the Cowboys would have been ranked higher had they not had the great misfortune to have to face the aforementioned trio.
Was it simply coincidence that those four schools were routinely among the top five nationally in both scoring offense and passing offense? Did anyone ever bother to say, “Texas Tech is awesome, but how come Eastern Washington dropped 24 points on them?” Or, “Oklahoma State is 109th in pass defense, and that’s only one spot lower than Texas…should we be concerned?”
If we should have been, we were not. And why bother? When’s the last time you saw a tackle-for-loss on a “SportsCenter” highlight unless a turnover was involved?
The Heisman Trophy race, from October onward, was a three-way race between quarterbacks Colt McCoy (Longhorns), Graham Harrell (Red Raiders) and eventual winner Sam Bradford (Sooners). Was it all an illusion? Certainly not.
The Longhorns, behind McCoy’s leadership, arm, and legs, defeated three top 11 teams (OU, Missouri and Okie State) over three consecutive Saturdays. Texas Tech produced both the Biletnikoff Award winner (the first wide receiver to repeat, by the way) in Michael Crabtree and the NCAA’s all-time touchdown passes leader in Harrell, who closed out his career with 134. The Sooners became the first school in the modern era to ever to put up 60-plus points five consecutive weeks (on the weekend predating this streak, Bradford & Co. were 'held' to 58 points by Kansas State).
And while Texas-Oklahoma is a vast region, what compromises such feats is that it all took place in their own backyard, versus their neighbors. Of the four elite Big 12 South schools this autumn, only Oklahoma faced a BCS program that finished with a winning record (Orange Bowl participant Cincinnati, whom the Sooners beat 52-36 in Norman).
Texas Tech never met a non-conference BCS opponent until it lost by 13 to Ole Miss in the Cotton Bowl. Texas beat a rebuilding Arkansas squad. And Oklahoma State, well, they beat 2-11 Washington State, 39-13.
Oklahoma actually faced the two toughest non-conference foes in Cincy and TCU, a bona fide top 12 finisher whom the Sooners beat 35-10.
But now, with the memories of the Holiday, Cotton and Fiesta Bowls fresh in our minds, this foursome no longer appears so fearsome. And many of us, in light of viewing the Rose and Sugar Bowls, are wondering where these four fit alongside the likes of 12-1 USC or 13-0 Utah. The latter, by the way, beat the school (Oregon State) that beat the Trojans.
Most don't like the Sooners’ chances in Dolphin Stadium, despite them having the Heisman Trophy winner under center and an offensive line that starts five seniors and is considered the best in the nation. The leader of that unit, by the way, is offensive tackle Phil Loadholt, who at 6-8, 340 pounds is a load to behold.
OU will have to overcome the absence of its top defensive player, middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Oct. 11 loss to Texas. The Sooners will also be without 1,000-yard rusher DeMarco Murray, who is also their top kick returner.
But it is not just the absence of two stars, or the recent BCS bowl woes, with which OU must contend. If only it were that. No, Florida under Urban Meyer’s short tenure has forged a reputation as being victorious when it matters. And they have one Tim Tebow leading the charge.
The deck is stacked against OU, and thus the Big 12 South and its honor, on Thursday evening in Miami. But then, if you’re a venerable viewer of bowl games, you know that sometimes the best thing for a team is to have almost nobody believe in you.
But it’s up to the Sooners. All those good vibes we got watching games in Dallas and Austin, in Lubbock and Norman this autumn. Those Saturday Nights, as it were. Come Thursday it’s up to Oklahoma to prove that they weren’t just all Saturday night lightweights.