In the last two seasons, one Oklahoma team went 11–2 and upset Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Another went 8–5 and got offensive coaches fired. According to the statistical profile, one of those teams was better and it wasn’t the one hoisting a bowl trophy.
Let’s take a closer look.
Football Outsiders F/+ ratings are an opponent-adjusted look at per-play and per-drive efficiency. They take into account the components that go into winning in the long term, and they can frequently differ from poll rankings or teams’ records because they, like most systems of computer ratings, look at what is most sustainable and controllable.
From 2006-12, Oklahoma ranked in the F/+ top 10 every year, peaking at second in 2008 and otherwise oscillating between sixth and ninth. In 2013, the Sooners stumbled to 23rd, but in 2014, they bounced up to 19th.
“Years of nearly elite play, followed by a stumble in 2013 and a slight rebound.” That’s exactly how you remember Oklahoma’s recent football history, right? No? You’re more inclined to remember the actual results (improvement to 11–2 in 2013, followed by a preseason top-5 ranking and a collapse to 8–5)? Of course you are.
Perhaps no blue-blood program has seen its stats and narratives disagree more in recent times than Bob Stoops’ Sooners. Part of this is the Sooners’ own fault. Of their 28 losses since 2006, 13 have been by double digits, and six have been by at least 28 points. Since Nick Saban took over in 2007, Alabama has lost by double digits only four times and has never lost by more than 14. And until the Rose Bowl embarrassment against Oregon in January, Florida State had made it almost five full seasons without losing by more than 11.
Be it a product of iffy motivation or smoke-and-mirror disguises of potential problems, Oklahoma doesn’t stumble — the Sooners fall down a manhole. We remember their failures more because of the significance of them.
At the same time, randomness has played a huge role in how we perceive the last decade or so of the Stoops era. And it has completely impacted the narratives surrounding the Sooners’ 2013 “rise” and their 2014 “collapse.”
In 2013, Oklahoma fell to 23rd in the F/+ ratings because it couldn’t stop the run and, until the out-of-nowhere dominance of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, its offense couldn’t do anything at a particularly elite level. The Sooners gave up a total of 510 rushing yards and averaged just 3.9 yards per play in losses to Texas and Baylor. They gave up huge per-carry rushing averages against Notre Dame, West Virginia and Oklahoma State, too, and their offense was average at best against ULM, West Virginia and Kansas. But they continued to survive — 16–7 over West Virginia, 20–17 over TCU and 38–30 over Texas Tech. And when they improved late, they still had a chance to play for some high stakes. And then the luck kicked in.
No matter how much we want to convince ourselves that there is skill in recovering fumbles or that you create your own breaks, that is only so true. If your guys run a lot and stay near the ball carrier, you’ll have more bodies available when a fumble hits the ground. And playing a certain aggressive style on defense can lead to more forced fumbles and passes defensed (and therefore more opportunities for turnovers and lucky bounces). But you don’t control it nearly as much as you want to.
So when Oklahoma recovered nine of nine fumbles in the Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Alabama games, there was no way to spin that beyond, “That was amazingly lucky.” On a per-play basis, the Sooners were outgained in all three games — Kansas State averaged 7.3 yards per play to OU’s 6.5; OSU gained 5.7 to OU’s 4.9 and Alabama averaged 7.9 to OU’s 5.8. That Oklahoma won all three of these games by at least nine points was a combination of timely play, fortitude and pure, unadulterated luck of the bounce. And in 2013, Oklahoma proved it was a resilient, lucky team, not one destined for a national title run.
In 2014, however, luck reverted for the Sooners in a way that it hadn’t since 2009, when they lost four games by a combined 12 points. After a 4–0 start that included easy wins over what would prove to be solid Louisiana Tech (F/+ ranking: 35th) and Tennessee (24th) teams, the Sooners fell to an awesome TCU squad by four in Fort Worth. The per-play yardage was nearly even (TCU 6.01, OU 5.91), and OU won the turnovers battle, 3-to-2, but randomness played a role. First, TCU’s Trevone Boykin fumbled near the OU goal line, and his teammate Cliff Murphy recovered it for a touchdown. Then, Paul Dawson picked off a Trevor Knight pass early in the fourth quarter and returned it 41 yards for a go-ahead score.
Two weeks later, OU suffered what might have been the most random, unlikely loss in the 2014 season. The Sooners outgained Kansas State by 148 yards and created eight scoring opportunities (first downs inside the opponent’s 40) to KSU’s four. But Michael Hunnicutt, an otherwise solid placekicker, missed an extra point, a 32-yard field goal, and, in the closing minutes, a 19-yard chip shot. That was seven nearly automatic points off of the board. Plus, Knight’s only interception of the game came from his end zone and resulted in a 5-yard pick-six. The game featured 14 rather fluky points, and OU lost by one.
The Oklahoma State loss was perhaps even less expected. Despite losing star rusher Samaje Perine to injury, the Sooners held a 35–21 lead with five minutes to play, and OSU was attempting a comeback with a freshman quarterback. But Mason Rudolph connected twice with Brandon Sheperd, first for 14 yards, then for a 43-yard score, to cut the Sooner lead to 35–28. Then, after an OU interception all but iced the game, the Sooners punted from OSU territory with under a minute left. Stoops elected to re-kick after a running-into-the-kicker penalty, presumably to kill more time and perhaps pin OSU a little bit deeper, but with just under a minute left, Jed Barnett kicked a returnable ball to Tyreek Hill, who returned the punt 92 yards for the game-tying score. Following another missed Hunnicutt field goal — this one from 44 yards — OSU made a 21-yarder and stole a win.
In 2013, Oklahoma recovered 68 percent of all fumbles. In 2014, the Sooners recovered 39 percent. In 2013, they went 8–0 in games decided by 15 or fewer points. In 2014, they lost three games by eight combined points. The dis-spiriting losses to Baylor (48–14 in Norman) and Clemson (40–6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl) proved that the Sooners were not an elite team, but 2013’s late-season luck set an unfair bar. And when Oklahoma failed to meet that bar, the demands for change set in.
Barring any further changes, Stoops will take the field in September with four new assistants on the staff. That OU hasn’t produced a top-10 finish (in the F/+ rankings) for two years running suggests change might not be a bad thing, but demanding change, in part, because of fluky losses to Oklahoma State and Kansas State made no more sense than building OU into a title contender because of fluky 2013 wins against the same teams.
Our perceptions and reactions are based off of wins and losses. Players get rings because of them. Coaches get promotions and pink slips because of them. This makes sense, of course. If our team wins because of fumbles luck, we don’t say “Yeah, but that didn’t really count” afterward. We celebrate, just as we vent after losses. But stats can sometimes remind us just how fickle football can be.
-By Bill Connelly, Football Study Hall/SB Nation