September 29, 2013

Oklahoma Sooners‘ defensive resurgence is no September mirage

A&M defense, Texas coach still have issues to address in October.

The September stretch of the college football calendar, filled with more glorified scrimmages than statement games, is over. But there have been lots of lessons learned as we prepare for October, the month that separates contenders from pretenders in the conference races.

Among them:

• The Stoops brothers have breathed life back into the Oklahoma defense, which was toothless in too many key games last season. But these Sooners (4-0), who climbed to No. 11 in Sunday’s Associated Press poll after a 35-21 victory over then-No. 22 Notre Dame, have brought back memories of dominant defenses from yesteryear in the second season of the Bob Stoops-Mike Stoops reunion tour.

With defensive coordinator Mike Stoops calling the signals, Oklahoma ranks sixth nationally in scoring defense (12.0 avg.) and No. 17 in total defense (299.5 yards per game) heading into this week’s game against TCU (2-2).

That caused Mike’s older brother, Bob, to pose for the most telling postgame photo of the season after Saturday’s victory in South Bend, Ind. Bob, flanked by his wife and mother, stood in front of a scoreboard emblazoned with the final score — “Oklahoma 35, Notre Dame 21” — as fans milled about on the field after the contest.

As a self-described “Irish Catholic kid” from Youngstown, Ohio, there was no hiding Stoops’ glee in helping OU improve its career mark to 2-9 in meetings against Notre Dame. Nor is there any denying that OU and No. 17 Baylor (3-0) have positioned themselves as the teams to beat in the Big 12 race as conference play begins in earnest this week.

No. 21 Oklahoma State (3-1) removed itself from that list, at least temporarily, with a shocking 30-21 loss to a West Virginia team that scored just seven points in eight quarters against the combined defensive efforts of OU and Maryland earlier this season.

• Southern California officials wasted no time in winning the 2013 Quick Trigger Award, announcing the dismissal of coach Lane Kiffin within hours after the Trojans’ 62-41 loss to Arizona State on Saturday night in Tempe, Ariz. Kiffin, who is 4-7 in his last 11 games (3-2 this season), received his pink slip from athletic director Pat Haden when the team’s charter flight landed in Los Angeles. The school posted its announcement while most Americans were snoozing in the wee hours of Sunday morning.

The trickle-down question is whether USC’s move will expedite the hair-trigger reflex of officials at Texas if embattled coach Mack Brown cannot turn around this season after a 2-2 start. Texas, 24-19 in its last 43 games under Brown, now has another power program to compete with in off-season efforts to land a new coach if it goes in that direction. And USC already has the jump on Texas and everyone else in making meaningful overtures to replacement candidates. If Haden does not have the number for Jimmy Sexton, agent for Alabama’s Nick Saban and other notable college coaches, on his speed dial, he will soon.

• It is a good thing that No. 9 Texas A&M (4-1) has scored at least 40 points in every game this season, extending a school-record and FBS-best mark to eight in a row dating to 2012. Based on Saturday’s 483 yards allowed in a 45-33 escape from an average-at-best Arkansas team, the Aggies will need it. The upside? No one will be able to accuse coach Kevin Sumlin of running up scores and stats for quarterback Johnny Manziel in efforts to help him repeat as a Heisman Trophy winner. The Aggies will need every yard of offense Manziel can generate to beat the best remaining SEC teams on their schedule.
• No. 20 Texas Tech may have maxed out the contributions from its tag-team freshman quarterback tandem (Baker Mayfield, Davis Webb) while building a 4-0 start under first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury. Do not be surprised if Kingsbury starts sophomore Michael Brewer, who has yet to play because of a back injury, in Saturday’s game at Kansas (2-1) if Brewer is cleared medically for game action and practices well this week.
• The Pac-12, not the Big 12, is the conference that will push the SEC for the title of nation’s toughest BCS league this season. Four undefeated Pac-12 schools rank among the nation’s top 15 teams — No. 2 Oregon (4-0), No. 5 Stanford (4-0), No. 12 UCLA (3-0), No. 15 Washington (4-0) — and all four are matchup nightmares for opponents.

The Big 12 will battle the American Athletic Conference and the Big Ten for softest touch among the elite leagues. That’s too bad because Oklahoma (4-0) and Baylor (3-0) should both be top 10 teams very soon. And both could use more high-profile wins on their ledgers (requiring better play from league peers) when it is time to decide BCS bowl berths in December.

As things stand, the Big 12’s lone BCS bowl berth this season projects to be the Fiesta Bowl slot reserved for the league champion.

• A tremendous postseason matchup for fans would be a renewal of the Battle of the Brazos: Bowl Edition. And it’s possible in two venues.

Baylor ranks first nationally in total offense (751.3 yards per game) and scoring offense (69.7 avg). A&M is fourth in total offense (586.4), fifth in scoring (49.2 avg.). The teams could meet in the Fiesta Bowl, if Baylor wins the Big 12 and A&M earns an at-large BCS berth. Or they could hook up in the Cotton Bowl in the final season of the existing agreement to match a Big 12 team against an SEC opponent in Arlington.

Regardless of location, a matchup of the state’s two most explosive offenses would be a postseason treat for college football fans in Texas.

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