Our own Bill Connelly recently tackled the question of who comprised the best 50 college football teams since WWII, using S&P as a guideline. One of the more interesting selections was Connelly's #3 all time team, the 2008 Oklahoma Sooners.
As a Longhorn fan who was attending the University of Texas in the year 2008, I had a similarly close view of that Oklahoma team to what Bill enjoyed as an in-state witness, but a wildly different perspective. For Texas fans, the 2008 Sooners were the ultimate land thieves, stealing Texas' Big 12 South crown due to an inflated BCS ranking created via blowout wins where Stoops ran up the score combined with Texas' misfortune to face a schedule that pitted them against four top ranked opponents in four weeks.
You'll rarely find a Longhorn who would say that the 2008 Oklahoma Sooners were better than the 2008 Texas Longhorns, but there's no doubt that this Oklahoma team changed the way the game is played while dominating the Big 12 conference at the league's zenith. Here's the Oklahoma side of the story:
The Big 12 in 2008
The year 2008 was perhaps the first in which the spread had really taken hold across the conference and the league's various teams were absolutely loaded thanks to the infusion of Texas high school QBs who'd grown up in the system. In particular, the shotgun spread had weaponized a generation of quick-thinking, quick-moving undersized QBs that were absolutely running amok at this time.
The Big 12 included a lot of QB's of note with the following performances in 2008:
|Baylor||Robert Griffin III||6-2, 215||2091||7.8||15-3|
|Kansas State||Josh Freeman||6-6, 240||2945||7.7||20-8|
|Oklahoma State||Zac Robinson||6-3, 215||3064||9.8||25-10|
|Nebraska||Joe Ganz||6-1, 210||3568||8.5||25-11|
|Texas||Colt McCoy||6-1, 210||3859||8.9||34-8|
|Kansas||Todd Reesing||5-11, 201||3888||7.8||32-13|
|Missouri||Chase Daniel||6-0, 220||4335||8.2||39-18|
|Oklahoma||Sam Bradford||6-4, 220||4720||9.8||50-7|
|Texas Tech||Graham Harrell||6-2, 215||5111||8.2||45-9|
That's seven guys who hit 3000 passing yards, five who accounted for 30 or more passing TDs, and their weekly battles made for some exciting Saturdays. Within that environment, the Sooners dominated and they did so with an average margin of +26 in conference play.
The Sooners scored at least 60 points in each of their last five Big 12 games with the ultimate highlight coming in the form of a 65-21 beatdown of then undefeated Texas Tech.
If you didn't bring your A-game every Saturday in the 2008 Big 12 you could get blown out in a hurry and usually the team getting blown out was the one playing against Oklahoma.
The 2008 Sooners
In 2008, Oklahoma was at the forefront of the up-tempo revolution, but what they really demonstrated that year was what the other major college football powers are now realizing; that an approach that focuses on simplicity and execution works to the advantage of the more talented teams.
This Oklahoma team was exceptionally talented.
The offense included three first round draft picks and six other draft picks in the starting lineup while the defense also featured six players who would be drafted with one future first round selection. Every additional snap that Oklahoma guaranteed either for their own offense or for the opponent just increased the instances in which the opposing team was going to have to out-execute the superior Sooner roster and avoid any game-changing disasters.
What made them especially dominant was where their best players were positioned on the field. Every team in the Big 12 had great athletes at the skill positions but Oklahoma's four future 1st rounders were at QB (Sam Bradford), RT (Trent Williams), DT (Gerald McCoy), and TE (Jermaine Gresham).
With impact players along the line of scrimmage and both OTs (LT Phil Loadholt and RT Trent Williams) consisting of eventual draft picks, it was very difficult to line up and beat the Sooners at the point of attack in these high paced games. On offense, they tended to make the most of this advantage to simply own the line of scrimmage with their size and tempo, while their defense got a lot of mileage from having a very effective front four and a versatile back seven that allowed them to alternate between base coverages and some nasty blitz combos.
"Spread to run"
The Sooners were a balanced attack, as evidenced by Bradford throwing for 4k yards and 50 touchdowns, but they made quite a bit of their run game and had two 1k yard backs in Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray. Both were great backs, but OU probably could have put over most any back thanks to a fantastic OL. Here's what their five man group looked like that year:
|Left tackle||Phil Loadholt||6-8, 343||Senior|
|Left guard||Duke Robinson||6-5, 330||Senior|
|Center||Jon Cooper||6-2, 291||Senior|
|Right guard||Brandon Walker||6-3, 284||Senior|
|Right tackle||Trent Williams||6-5, 325||Junior|
The Sooners were excellent running left behind the 673 pound wall of Loadholt and Robinson and they'd often supplement them either with Gresham on the edge in zone, perhaps with a lead insert from fullback Matt Clapp, or by pulling Walker over on "power."
Robinson was a particularly nimble bear of a lineman (two-time consensus All-American) who was fearsome either in reach blocking DL or climbing up and taking out linebackers at the second level. Meanwhile DeMarco Murray's quick cuts and vision really made the most of these plays as defenders who succeeded in working across these massive linemen often then found themselves back on the wrong side after a jump step or cut by Murray and forced to work back across the face of a Robinson or Loadholt.
The Sooner passing game had several solid targets, including freshman standout and future star Ryan Broyles, but TE Jermaine Gresham was the real star of the show. At 6'5" 260 he was a major match-up problem but he was plenty quick as well and could pull away if he found enough space. He finished the year with 66 catches for 950 yards and 14 TDs and was an unsolvable problem for OU's toughest opponents that year, even catching a combined 13 passes for 152 yards and three TDs against the Florida and Texas defenses in OU's two high-profile defeats.
The passing game was also made more effective by Murray's involvement and the back had 400 receiving yards himself and was a true terror in the notorious OU screen game which included some slip and tunnel screens that danced on the limits of legality with the way they released linemen downfield to pancake exhausted defenders.
Finally you had Bradford's exceptionally accurate arm throwing to senior receivers Juaquin Iglesias (1150 yards) and Manuel Johnson (714 yards) who were a handful themselves even without Gresham and Murray drawing extra attention that tight ends and running backs typically can't command in the passing game. Blitzing the Sooners was exceptionally difficult thanks to Bradford's quick responses, this awesome collection of skill talent, and the effectiveness of the Sooner screen game.
Brent Venables' forgotten success
On defense, the Sooners didn't have the same amount of exceptional talent but they've been underrated by history because they were involved in a few shootouts back before everyone realized that the modern game meant that the days of holding everyone under 20 points each week were over and done.
The most impressive aspect of this defensive unit was their front, which was led by DT Gerald McCoy, weakside DE Jeremy Beal, and weakside LB Travis Lewis. McCoy would go on to become a 1st round pick after the 2009 season and at the 3-technique he was totally beyond most of the Big 12 guards who had to take him on 1-on-1. He had 6.5 sacks and was devastating either in a straight pass-rush or stunting as a part of the Sooner 3rd down package or blitzes.
Jeremy Beal was only a sophomore but he was the featured pass-rusher in this defense and managed 8.5 sacks working often as a stand-up rusher in obvious passing settings where he had more leverage to attack OL and could also capably drop into the flat in Venables' potent zone-blitz package.
Travis Lewis was only a freshman in addition to being a converted running back but he killed it in his rookie season with 144 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss, four sacks, and four interceptions. He was instinctive and fast and the Sooners kept him well covered.
The defensive backfield was loaded with veterans of athleticism that was typically good if not quite great. The Sooners played a base "nickel" with junior Keenan Clayton (6'2" 220) serving as the space-backer and senior cover safety Lendy Holmes playing behind him and helping to handle the spacing that opposing spread offenses placed on them. They played their corners "boundary" and "field" and used big Brian Jackson (6'1" 201) on the boundary backed by hard-hitting safety Nic Holmes (6'3" 230) while junior Dominique Franks locked down the field.
Against spread attacks like the Texas Tech Red Raiders, the Sooners played a great deal of cover 2 and relied on the athleticism of their linebackers, the reliable tackling and leverage of their senior safeties, and their ability to get pressure from a four-man rush or to mix things up with single-deep, five man blitzes. Many great defenses today have found that combination to still be relevant and productive.
Why did they lose two games?
Venables' 2008 Oklahoma defense could fit in with the better defenses today both in terms of personnel and schemes (his 2009 defense that returned many of these players proved to be dominant) while the offense set records, won the Heisman, and played a major role in forging the path for up-tempo spread systems that are now taking over at the major college programs.
Yet this Oklahoma team doesn't always get as much credit as they deserve because of those two stains on their resume. They won the Big 12 thanks to a tie-breaker that resolved a three-way tie between them, the Longhorns (who beat OU 45-35 but lost on the road to Tech on the last play of the game), and the Red Raiders (whom Oklahoma squashed like a bug playing in Norman).
Their superior BCS ranking over Texas catapulted them into the Big 12 championship, where they easily dispatched Missouri, and then into the championship against Florida. Of course, the Gators took Oklahoma down 24-14 leading to what will likely be a century of "what might have been" questions from Texas fans and a black mark on Oklahoma's reputation as an unstoppable juggernaut.
The only two games against other blueblood programs that OU played that year were the only two close contests they experienced and both were defeats. However, there are just a few mitigating factors that should be remembered before we dismiss this team.
The first is that the defeat against Texas included an early game injury to middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds that left the Sooners without an experienced LB in the middle against a passing game that specialized on feasting against linebackers in coverage with the legendary "McCoy to Shipley" combo. The numbers are stark, Texas averaged 4.6 yards per play before Reynolds' injury and 8.3 yards per play after he went down. We can dismiss the lack of depth, although they eventually got freshman Austin Box ready to go as a replacement later in the year, but most teams require some luck with injuries at key positions to win titles.
Secondly, the defeat against Florida came without DeMarco Murray in the lineup thanks to another injury. It's less clear how much of an impact that made on the game, especially when Chris Brown had 110 rushing yards, but it's noteworthy as Murray was one of the most explosive backs in the entire country.
Ultimately the 2008 Sooners didn't get it done, they didn't win the title and they came up short in the two biggest games of the year, but the team should still go down as one of the most impressive and influential groups in Big 12 history.