NORMAN – Drake Stoops serves many roles on the Sooner football squad.
Team leader. Reliable receiver. Symbol of the glorious past. The House of Stoops stands tall still, in part because a descendant wears shoulder pads and has 132 career catches.
And as such, Stoops has an additional role. Team historian. He might not recite all the precedents, but even as a little kid, he lived through many of them. He knows.
Like 2006, when Texas was ranked fourth nationally and seemingly headed to the Big 12 Championship Game, only to stumble in its final two games, 45-42 at Kansas State and 12-7 at home to Kansas State. The Longhorns had beaten the Sooners, but OU won the South Division and eventually the Big 12 title game.
Or 2007, when OU also needed help in the regular-season finale and danged if the Sooners didn’t get it — unranked A&M beat Texas 38-30 on Thanksgiving Friday, and OU again won the division and soon enough another Big 12 title.
The 2008 three-way tie you remember well, no doubt. Or even 2020, when the Sooners opened 0-2 in the conference and went into November trailing Iowa State and Kansas State, both of which had scissored the Sooners in September. But K-State didn’t win again, OU was handed a trip to Arlington and another Big 12 title ensued.
Heck, it goes the other way, too. 2001 Bedlam, anyone?
Which brings us to November 2023, when the Sooners are licking wounds from a 27-24 Bedlam defeat that ended OU’s College Football Playoff aspirations and crippled its Big 12 Championship Game hopes.
The result has brought the usual responses. “Kill the umpire!” Or “fire the coordinator!” And “the season is lost!”
But battle-scarred veterans sing a different tune. Row the boat. Stay the course. Grind to the nose stone.
“There’s a lot left to play for,” Stoops said this week. “And shoot, we may not control our whole destiny right now, but you never know. College football is a crazy game. Who knows what could happen? I still feel that anything could happen.
“I’m not gonna make predictions or anything like that, but if we take care of our job and finish the last three games and finish at 10-2, that’s a good, promising year. And who knows where we end up after that.”
OU is on the 14th fairway. Play all 18 holes. Finish the round.
The Sooners host West Virginia on Saturday night, and the winner will be at worst one game back of first place. Heck, if both Texas (at Texas Christian) and OSU (at Central Florida) lose, the OU-WVU winner is in first place.
“All our goals are still in front of us,” said defensive end Ethan Downs, conveniently forgetting the playoff, but that’s OK. “We don’t like that we have to hope for someone else to slip up for us to make it to the Big 12 (title game), but we’re on the road right now. Even if it’s a narrow road, we’re still fighting together.”
Here’s the thing about such playerspeak. It’s true. The Sooner season is not lost. Even if the cavalry doesn’t come to the rescue, even if OSU and Texas win out and produce an all-orange Big 12 title game, the sum of all Sooner fears, the season is not lost.
This OU team could win out — should win out — and go 10-2. It’s not a far-flung projection to picture the Sooners in the Cotton Bowl or Fiesta Bowl, against Tulane or Washington or Ole Miss or Alabama (be still my heart), with a shot to finish 11-2.
Is someone trying to argue that wouldn’t be a good season? That wouldn’t cleanse the stench of the 6-7 maiden season off Brent Venables? That wouldn’t be a successful launch into the Southeastern Conference?
“We have goals that stretch far beyond a Big 12 championship,” Downs said. “We’re creating a legacy here. We’ve got a standard to uphold, and if we get to the championship, that would be amazing.
“But we’ve got lots of goals ahead of us that are greater than a Big 12, so just continuing to chop wood, continuing to work, continuing to go back, dive into the fire and find joy in the doing, find joy in the journey.”
Judging by its leaders, I channel my inner Les Miles. I like this team. I like its resolve.
Sure, it’s a bummer to go from unbeaten playoff contender to twice-beaten straggler in a span of 171 hours. From heartbreakers to tiebreakers.
But let’s review. OSU and Kansas now are ranked 15th (Cowboys) and 16th (Jayhawks) by the playoff committee. The Sooners lost back-to-back road games, against quality teams, in emotionally-charged settings (miraculous KU revival, final Bedlam), and both games were incredibly close with high drama to the very end, with controversy added onto Bedlam.
We figured the Sooners would have a much better record this season because their schedule was historically easy, and that’s true. But turns out the Big 12 is deeper than we thought, and losses like these the last two Saturdays are no great indictment.
“We’ve played two really good teams on the road in back-to-back weeks,” said young but wise linebacker Kobie McKnzie. “We haven’t necessarily played our best, but we have to understand that we’ve still been in those close games without playing our best.”
The Big 12 for a decade has been a bastion of balanced schedules. A full round-robin means everyone is playing everyone else. No gripes from any precinct.
But this 14-team iteration — and the future 16-team SEC and Big 12 schedules — is different. The Big 12 is divided into obvious tiers so far, with seven teams sporting winning records. The only one of those seven to lose to a lower-tier team is West Virginia, beaten on a Hail Mary by Houston.
OU and West Virginia are in a five-way tie for third place, at 4-2. The Sooners have played four games against upper-tier teams. West Virginia has played one game against upper-tier teams (and lost, 48-34 at home, to OSU).
So the Sooners are more battle-tested and should win Saturday. Same with the final two games, Brigham Young and TCU.
The only way this season goes sour is if the Sooners let OSU beat them twice. Paging Brent Venables, paging Brent Venables.
“Again, it just starts with me,” Venables admitted. “Attitude, accountability, ownership, motivation, how you teach and how you correct. Get the guys to have the right perspective. You’re in this sport handling both success and failure, and everything in between is important. Getting your mindset, your attitude, your perspective.
“Perspective drives everything. Having the right perspective, it’s OK, you should be disappointed, you’ve invested a lot, didn’t get the result that you wanted. But it’s not a failure. Some people will agree with that. Some people won’t. That’s fine. That’s everybody’s prerogative, but it’s got to be eyes forward. You can’t sit there and look in the rearview mirror and put the car in a ditch.”
The Sooners are not in the ditch. They’ve been fender-bendered a couple of times, but they’re still on the track for this season and still on track for later seasons.
And let’s let Drake Stoops take off his historian’s hat and don his leadership hat.
Tell Stoops that some claim there’s nothing left to play for, and the Youngstown comes out in him, even if he never called the Rust Belt home.
“All right, well, yeah, that’s natural,” Stoops said. “But I come in here day in and day out, spend 10 hours up here every day, and for me, there’s a lot left to play for.
“I bust my tail year round for this. For six years now. So I’m not really listening to what people say. I don’t care if we’re 0-8 right now. I’m playing ball because I love to play football. I love my teammates. I love my coaches. I love the University of Oklahoma. I got a lot of pride for this place. So I’m gonna go hard every single day and do everything I possibly can to see
History, reality, pride. The Sooners should not be short of motivation.