The Oklahoma Sooners earned an unfavorable reputation as the 2009 season dragged. With a perfect 6-0 record at home, the Sooners looked almost invincible at Owen Field. Away from home, Oklahoma was just 2-5.
This year's Sooners are different and they have plenty to prove -- only part of which is shedding that tag of a team that leaves its best play at home. Oklahoma already outlasted Texas in the Cotton Bowl earlier this month and beat Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati in September.
"We’re staying healthy and we’ve got the whole nucleus from last year back this year. We’re just a tougher team," said linebacker Travis Lewis. "We learned from those close games, those tough losses. Then you mix that with this team this year and we're just a tougher, more healthy team."
This team will face its toughest road test of the season so far on Saturday when it travels to No. 11 Missouri to play the Tigers.
Win this game, and any talk of a team that struggles on the road should end immediately. Last year's offense was hit the worst by the injuries: shuffling out offensive linemen nearly every week, and playing without two of its best players in tight end Jermaine Gresham and quarterback Sam Bradford for almost the entire season.
This year's defense lost both cornerbacks, two linebackers and three defensive linemen to the NFL, including Gerald McCoy, who was picked third overall in April's draft. After early struggles by the unit, including giving up more than 350 yards on the ground to Air Force and more than 340 yards through the air to Utah State, the defense is finding the consistency to keep its winning streak alive.
"We've always known we were capable of being a great defense, we just haven't been consistent, and we've been giving up some big plays," Lewis said.
That wasn't the case last week, when the Sooners shut out Iowa State and looked more like their dominant selves in 2009, when they recorded shutouts against Oklahoma State, Tulsa and Idaho State.
"That bye week helped," Lewis said. "It helped settle us down, brought us back to health and helped us get a reality check."
And after that performance, the Sooners bring a No. 1 rank in the BCS standings to take on the Tigers. On Monday, the day after the Sooners won the meaningless midseason crown, Lewis, a team captain, exercised some leadership.
"It’s great from a recognition standpoint, but it can also be a bad thing. Some guys can become complacent. I just stressed to our players, don’t talk about it, don’t think about it, you still have to win every game. Go out there and play," Lewis said. "I told them I've been on No. 1 teams, I've played No. 1 teams ... Ohio State lost last week. Alabama lost the week before. No. 1 means nothing. It just means you've got a bigger target on your chest and you have to work that much harder."
And when Lewis looks back on how his team has played through its first six games, it's hard to find any satisfaction in the ranking.
"We’ve still got a lot to prove. Especially from a defense standpoint. We're ranked like 80th or 90th in the country, so we don't have much room to be complacent," Lewis said. "We all feel the same way, that we haven’t played like the No. 1 team in the nation."