April 25, 2008

Sooners fans concerned about bowl losses

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com.
Previous mailbags
April 18: Florida State's legacy
April 11:Product of weakness?
April 4: Missing the past
March 28: Party crashers

College football programs want fans' allegiance as well as their money.

In turn, those fans who often must give sizable donations just for the opportunity to purchase season tickets have every right to have high expectations and ask questions when those expectations aren't met. But how high is too high?

Should a coach who has won a national title this decade be questioned? Should a team that has won three conference crowns in four seasons be questioned? How about one that has averaged 10 victories over the past three seasons?

A program like that probably doesn't need to be questioned, but some fans of a team that fits the profile are wondering what is going wrong.

What about Big Game Bob?

What exactly do you think is happening with Bob Stoops' troops the past several bowl games? At first, it seemed that they just simply played their normal game during bowl time. But in the past several years, it appears the team is completely tuning out the coaches, and we are forced to watch a team with a hangover-like personality during game time.

Roger in Tulsa

This inquiry isn't nearly as disturbing as last year's story about the Oklahoma man who nearly yanked the, uh, crank off a Texas fan for having the audacity to wear a Longhorns T-shirt in a Norman bar. However, there is a common theme here: OU fans tend to overreact.

Yeah, the Sooners are 1-4 in their past five bowl appearances, but let's not suggest "Big Game Bob" Stoops add an extra "o" to his postseason nickname just yet.

As one of the most successful programs in college football history, Oklahoma obviously has high standards. Those lofty standards were probably even raised a bit when Stoops' Sooners posted three consecutive bowl victories and a national championship from 2001-03.

Yeah, they lost their bowl in 2004, but that was to LSU in the national championship game when injured quarterback Jason White was a sitting duck against the Tigers' ferocious pass rush.

And, yeah, the Sooners were blown out 55-19 the following year, but that also was in the national championship game against a USC team that had 13 players who would be selected in the first three rounds of the next three NFL drafts.

The 2007 Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State might have been embarrassing, but perhaps the undefeated Broncos were just better than everyone wanted to believe. And even then, they needed two of the most memorable trick plays ever to pull the upset.

Then this past season, the Sooners without dominating defensive tackle DeMarcus Granger, who had been suspended for shoplifting lost 48-28 in the Fiesta Bowl to West Virginia, which had been one win away from playing for the national championship.

Too many fans dismiss West Virginia because the Big East often is perceived as an inferior conference. But the Mountaineers have won their past three bowls, with victories over SEC champion Georgia, ACC runner-up Georgia Tech and now Big 12 champion Oklahoma. That qualifies the Mountaineers as a legitimate power.

Further, consider that Oklahoma has won three of the past four Big 12 championships and that the past two came with Paul Thompson, who had moved from receiver, then redshirt freshman Sam Bradford at quarterback.

Some have speculated that Stoops hasn't put an emphasis on winning bowls and instead approached them as a reward, and that's why Oklahoma has struggled of late. But Stoops is so intense and competitive that that doesn't ring true to me.

So what is happening in Norman? Perhaps OU merely has faced opponents that were better on a given night.

At least that's the way I see it, and most reasonable OU fans probably see it that way, too.

Just in case, I'll be mindful of what T-shirts I wear the next time I'm in Oklahoma.

Home Sweet Dome

I am tired of hearing about how good the SEC is without any of its teams ever playing a big-time non-conference game. Sure, they are great about playing slightly above-average teams, but that's it. When is an LSU or a Georgia going to play an away game at USC or Oklahoma? I'm tired of relying on the outcome of bowls the SEC (teams) play at virtual home sites to determine how competitive every conference is.

Matt in Boulder, Colo.

First of all, don't blame SEC teams for the championship venues. We all know the BCS championship game rotation. That's just the luck of the draw.

Besides, there's no proof SEC teams have won titles because of a "home field" advantage. Yes, LSU has won two championships in New Orleans, but Florida and Tennessee won in Arizona two time zones away from their campuses.

Cynics complain that SEC teams play lame non-conference schedules and there is a certain degree of truth to that. But the same can be said of most teams in the "Big Six" conferences: USC is the only team from a "power conference" playing just "Big Six" opponents this season. (Notre Dame is an independent but is considered a "Big Six" school.)

Numerous SEC teams have scheduled impressive non-conference games, but don't seem to get credit for it. Last season, Alabama and Florida played Florida State, Auburn played USF, Georgia played Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech,LSU played Virginia Tech, Ole Miss played Missouri, Mississippi State played West Virginia, South Carolina played Clemson, Tennessee played California and Vanderbilt played Wake Forest.

Still not convinced?

This season, SEC teams will travel to face such high-profile opponents as Texas, Florida State, Clemson and UCLA. But you asked specifically about LSU and Georgia.

While it's true LSU is playing an embarrassingly soft non-conference slate (no opponents from a "Big Six" conference), Georgia has a rather impressive schedule. The Bulldogs face Georgia Southern, a good Division I-AA program, Central Michigan, Georgia Tech and Arizona State (on the road).

By the way, Arizona State is the only non-conference opponent that Colorado visited last season.

No respect

I know the MAC isn't a conference that really is talked about, but why doesn't Central Michigan get more credit? The Chippewas have won two MAC championships in a row and have a star quarterback in Dan LeFevour.

Kyle in Mount Pleasant, Mich.

LeFevour obviously deserves accolades after having ranked fourth in the nation in total offense last season and being one of just three players to rush and pass for more than 1,000 yards (West Virginia's Patrick White and Louisiana-Lafayette's Michael Desormeaux were the others). Central Michigan's back-to-back MAC championships also warrant a tip of the cap.

But if the Chippewas aren't getting the credit you think they're due, that's easily explained.

Central Michigan played three "Big Six" opponents last season and lost four times. In three regular-season games, the Chippewas were routed by Kansas 52-7, Purdue 45-22 and Clemson 70-14. They were much more competitive a 51-48 loss in a rematch with Purdue in the Motor City Bowl.

Still, that Purdue team finished in a four-way tie for seventh place in the Big Ten. Therefore, skeptics might contend a MAC championship is equivalent to finishing eighth or worse in the Big Ten.

SEC forecast

What are your early predictions for the SEC East and West this season now that spring has concluded?

John in Presidio, Calif.

I'm on record as taking Georgia in the East and LSU in the West, then the Bulldogs to win the league championship.

Although Georgia's schedule might be the most difficult in the SEC, I'll stick with that pick - even though Florida and Tennessee will be strong challengers in the East and Auburn will contend in the West.

Last season, my picks were Florida in the East and LSU in the West, so my recent history shows I have a 50-50 chance of being right.

Challengers for Pac-10 title?

USC probably is going to be everyone's pick for another Pac-10 championship, and Dennis Erickson makes Arizona State look good. But which other Pac-10 teams should get respect? Oregon surprised people last season, and any chance of another Pac-10 team making an unexpected run for a BCS bowl?

Yuan in Berkeley, Calif.

Sure. But unfortunately for you, I doubt it's California because the Bears are replacing so much on offense their top three receivers, for example.

But if Rulon Davis stays healthy which he didn't do last year the Bears have an all-conference caliber defensive end. Perhaps the defense, which has eight returning starters, will keep the Bears afloat until new receivers develop.

At least the Bears can be optimistic at quarterback with Kevin Riley and Nate Longshore competing for that starting job. (See: Riley's popularity rebounds)

Aside from USC and Arizona State, I'd guess the Pac-10 teams most likely to make a serious BCS challenge are Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA.

Oregon projects to be good on defense with All-American candidates in end Nick Reed and strong safety Patrick Chung topping a list of seven returning starters. Quarterback Justin Roper played well in the Sun Bowl rout of USF, and tailback Jeremiah Johnson, returning from injury, was a solid backup for departed Jonathan Stewart. Three starters return on the offensive line, which is encouraging.

Oregon State is just the opposite of Oregon. It has several holes on defense, but the offense figures to be dangerous. Seven starters are back and that does not include receiver/kick returner Sammie Stroughter, who missed most of last season with injuries and other issues. He could emerge as a Heisman candidate if he returns to his form of 2006, when he ranked third nationally in punt-return yardage and 10th in receiving yardage.

As far as UCLA well, sometimes a new coach can make a big impact. We'll see if Rick Neuheisel does. The Bruins also are due to avoid the rash of injuries that have plagued them in recent seasons.

State of the program

It seemed after the 2005 season as though Penn State was ready to return to the nation's elite. Instead, the past two seasons have resulted in the frustration of teams that just weren't good enough, uncharacteristic disciplinary problems and an increasing number of key in-state recruits spurning the Lions for the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and even Pitt. What are your thoughts on the status of Penn State football?

Adam in Lehighton, Pa.

Penn State has 29 victories in the past three seasons. Only 12 teams have won more in that span, so I think that says the Lions have been among the nation's strongest programs.

But I agree that the epidemic of arrests and suspensions in State College are disconcerting, and the past two recruiting classes which Rivals.com ranked 24th in 2007 and 43rd in 2008 may be cause for alarm.

That said, coach Joe Paterno is fielding good teams and deserves to remain at the helm of that program as long as he wants. Still, the fact is some recruits may be scared off by the fact that he's 81 and that his future is uncertain. Surely, rival recruiters bring that up.

As far as 2008 goes, I think quarterback Daryll Clark will provide a spark to the offense. But because of the early entries to the NFL draft and the injury to Sean Lee, I'd guess the Lions won't win more than eight or nine games.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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