Two trademark wins. Two drastically different game plans.
Oklahoma defeated Oklahoma State and Alabama in its final two games of the 2013 season, a pair of wins that stand as the driving force behind OU's preseason accolades heading into this season.
And the Sooners looked like two different offenses in each triumph, leaning on their running game and physical nature to overwhelm the Cowboys in a 33-24 win in early December before using an up-tempo passing attack to confuse and disorient Alabama's defense in the 45-31 Allstate Sugar Bowl win in early January.
Against OSU, the Sooners opened the game with a three-receiver, one-tight end, one-running back pistol formation and began the game with back-to-back zone read plays. OU's second offensive snap of the game came with 14 seconds on the play clock. Against Alabama, OU began the game with the same personnel grouping but opened with a completed pass followed by an no-huddle, uptempo approach that resulted in the Sooners second snap with 30 seconds left on the play clock.
In addition, the Sooners ran 18 plays (out of 73 total plays) with two tight ends on the field against OSU. Against Alabama, OU ran three plays (out of 74 total plays) with two tight ends on the field.
That type of versatility is one of the foundations of the Sooners offense and serves as one key reason why OU could find itself right in the thick of the College Football Playoff race in November.
"Our best teams have been versatile," co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "That's what we've built this offense on. We look at the talents of our players and then we try to move the pieces of the puzzle around to take advantage of it."
Those two games could be a glimpse at the versatility at the disposal of Norvell, offensive coordinator Josh Heupel and the rest of the Sooners' offensive coaches in 2014. Quarterback Trevor Knight started both of those games, although he left the OSU game due to injury, and returns this fall to allow his versatility as a passer and runner to open up options for the Sooners offense.
Knight is the poster boy for OU's offensive explosion against the Crimson Tide but the Sooners' game plan and high tempo approach had just as much of an impact. Alabama looked ill-prepared for the Sooners' tempo, resulting in its defense playing much of the game on its heels as OU created chaos and confusion with the high-tempo game plan. It was a far cry from the Sooners' offense that averaged 38.7 plays per game with one or two tight ends on the field in the final six games of the regular season before running 21 plays with one or two tight ends against Alabama.
"When we have a quarterback that can handle it and our skill position players can handle it as well, our versatility helps our tempo package out tremendously," Heupel said. "I think that's where we are a little different than some tempo teams."
The change in approach gave OU an immediate advantage. And the Sooners are aiming to do more of the same in 2014.
"I think we're starting to see that with some of the kids we have the in the program now," Norvell said. "We're using that flexibility to be in tight formations and be spread out, use them as blockers, use them as receivers. We're trying to utilize those strengths the best we can. We've learned a lot about our new players in the last few weeks."
Knight is a terrific piece to build around, particularly if his passing skills continue to develop, but having a veteran offensive line could be the biggest piece of the puzzle. OU has eight different offensive linemen who have started a game in crimson and cream and feature a Big 12-best 107 career starts among those offensive linemen. That experience could pay dividends this season.
"It's huge," Heupel said of the impact of an experienced offensive line on the ability to play with tempo. "We're playing multiple formations so their ability to recognize things up front is critical. There's a lot on their plate so that experience is huge."
With Knight and an experienced offensive line to build around, OU is spending preseason camp identifying the players who can enhance the overall versatility of the offense while also fulfilling conventional roles with championship-level precision. Relatively unproven players like senior tight end Blake Bell, freshman fullback Dimitri Flowers and others will need to emerge for OU's offense to mimic the versatility it showed at the end of 2013.
"At the end of the day we have to play the guys who can go out and help compete for a championship," Heupel said. "That's what fall camp has been about."