The comeback is complete: A season after falling flat, Bob Stoops has led Oklahoma to a Big 12 title and the brink of a College Football Playoff berth.
Before we examine Baker Mayfield as a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate, and before Oklahoma is almost surely included in the second-ever College Football Playoff field, let’s pause a moment and tip our caps to Bob Stoops.
Really, we should have known better. Who are we—the outsiders, the media, the ones without championship rings—to question one of the top coaches in the game?
When Stoops reshuffled his staff in the off-season, dismissing some assistants, shuffling others around and bringing in a couple new ones, including offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley from East Carolina, it looked like desperation. Maybe Stoops had lost his touch, we said. Maybe it was time for him to move on. It was easy to look south and wonder if Stoops was about to take the Mack Brown and Texas route and limp out of what was once a powerhouse program.
Well, it turns out we were wrong. On Saturday night in Stillwater, Oklahoma all but sealed its invitation to the playoff with a 58–23 thumping of rival Oklahoma State. Led by 344 rushing yards from two of the best backs in college football (Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon) and 180 passing yards from one of the best characters in the game (Mayfield), the Sooners celebrated their 11th win of the season in Bedlam, and they know what this means for the future. While Cowboys coach Mike Gundy rightfully earned praise earlier this season for his team’s surprising 10–0 start, it’s Stoops, in his 17th season at Oklahoma, who deserves Coach of the Year consideration.
He didn’t completely reinvent the offense, but rather returned to his roots, as Stoops and Oklahoma ran the Air Raid back in 1999, Stoops’s debut season at the school with then-offensive coordinator Mike Leach. A year ago, after the end of an abysmal 8–5 campaign that had started with national championship hopes, Stoops had to change something. He chose to revamp the offense, even though outsiders cried for the removal of his brother, Mike Stoops, as defensive coordinator. We wondered if the wunderkind Riley could take advantage of arguably the best one-two running back punch in the FBS—sophomore Perine ran for 131 yards with two touchdowns at Oklahoma State, while redshirt freshman Mixon ran for 136 yards with two scores— and thought Stoops might have sealed his fate by making an unconventional hire.
There were off-field concerns, too: In the spring ball, the Sooners almost splintered when on-campus protests sparked some tough conversations about race and led to a temporary team-wide strike. In April, senior center Ty Darlington predicted that those experiences would “pay dividends in the summer, fall and beyond,” because it bonded players. He was right.
This season the Sooners cultivated one of the best offenses in the country, showed flashes of defensive dominance (sophomore cornerback Jordan Thomas picked off two passes Saturday, returning one for a score) and won the Big 12 title. After scoring just 17 points in a head-scratching loss to Texas on Oct. 10, the Sooners have averaged more than 50 points per game since. And they did it behind a new quarterback. Texas Tech transfer Mayfield (17 of 25 passing for 180 yards with two touchdowns) breezed into Norman, won the starting job and has become one of the most prolific signal-callers in the country, oozing moxie and dancing his way to the forefront of the Heisman conversation. Mayfield’s childlike glee after games perfectly embodies this group, which looks like it’s having more fun than any other team. Right now, the Sooners might be playing better than everyone else, too.
Sorry we doubted you, Stoops.