Big 12: Josh Heupel

If Baylor didn’t make the point clear, Clemson certainly did.

Oklahoma -- more specifically the Bob Stoops era at Oklahoma -- had come to a crossroads.

Thirty-four point losses to Tigers and Bears called for desperate measures, and Stoops fired a coordinator for the very first time, letting go of Josh Heupel, who quarterbacked the Sooners to that national championship that one time many years ago.

This week, in turn, Stoops made the hire that will come to define the twilight of his Oklahoma tenure, putting his future and the future of the program in the hands of a 31-year-old whiz kid.

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesBob Stoops is shaking up his offense with a return to the air raid attack he originally unleashed on the Big 12 in 1999.
Lincoln Riley arrives in Norman amidst hopes he can establish an offensive identity for a squad desperately in need of one, while also creating a buzz for a program, well, desperately in need of one.

Riley wasn’t the most seasoned coordinator Stoops could have hired. Except for a single bowl game, he’s never called plays for a Power 5 offense.

But there is no ambivalence to Riley’s philosophy. He is a direct descendant of the Mike Leach air raid attack, which Stoops originally unleashed on the Big 12 in 1999, which in turn fueled the Sooners to the national championship a year later.

Riley’s offenses at East Carolina have been among the most prolific in the country, this past season ranking fifth nationally in total offense. Like Dana Holgorsen, Riley has added his own touch to the air raid, with an emphasis on running the ball. Riley featured a 1,000-yard rusher the previous two seasons, and almost had another this past season. Of course, like Leach, Riley’s attack, however, is predicated on getting receivers the ball in open spaces.

Riley brings precisely what Oklahoma has lacked the past two seasons.

Offensive identity.

With the ambition of turning Trevor Knight into the next Johnny Manziel, Stoops pushed for a transition to a zone-read pistol attack that would showcase Knight’s athleticism. The shift resulted in Oklahoma losing its identity. The Sooners never felt comfortable running Knight, and Heupel never looked comfortable calling such a drastically different scheme. Despite having a Freshman All-American at running back in Samaje Perine, the Sooners ranked just fifth in the Big 12 in total offense. Heupel ultimately lost his job; Knight could be on the verge of losing his, too.

Essentially putting that fiasco in the past, Stoops is going back to what has worked best at Oklahoma -- at least when Adrian Peterson wasn’t in the backfield -- the air raid.

Yet a return to the air raid isn’t all that Riley is bringing to Norman.

Since 2008, the Sooners brand has gradually turned stale. The past six seasons, Oklahoma has been unable to seriously contend for a national championship into November. Over the same span, the Sooners have captured one outright Big 12 title, after completely dominating the league from 2000-08.

This was supposed to be the season that elevated the Sooners back to title contention. Oklahoma smoked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and returned the bulk of its team, including Knight.

Capitalizing on the momentum, the school launched a $400 million capital campaign that would turn Gaylord Family Memorial Stadium into the most luxurious venue in college football by 2016.

Instead, despite having a favorable schedule, the Sooners suffered through the most disappointing season of the Stoops era, finishing 8-5, with a stunning home loss to Oklahoma State sandwiched between the Baylor and Clemson blowouts. Struggles on the field led to struggles on the stadium fundraising trail (the price of oil dropping hasn’t helped, either).

Shortly after the season, Stoops and president David Boren concluded that drastic changes had to be made to restore excitement off the field. And improve the play on it.

All of that will fall on Riley.

Who now carries the legacy of Stoops and Oklahoma football on his young shoulders.
video
After an 8-5 season, Bob Stoops fired a playcaller for the first time in his career, terminating offensive coordinator Josh Heupel and receivers coach Jay Norvell over the weekend.

In our weekly Big 12 roundtable, we examine the big moves, whether Stoops should go deeper with further changes to his staff and who he should target next at offensive coordinator:

Should Stoops have fired Heupel and Norvell?

Chatmon: That's a tough one but it sure looks like the Sooners needed a scapegoat. OU's offense was among the nation's best during their time in charge. Yet I understand the need for excitement to blow away the cloud of disappointment hanging over the program. Heupel and Norvell aren't high on the list of guys that should have been handed a pink slip. The better option was a return to the balanced spread offense the Sooners once ran. The change to a zone-read style attack was silly. But I do understand the need for tangible change for appearance's sake.

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiCoach Bob Stoops is in search of a coordinator to help resurrect Oklahoma's offense next season.
Olson: Honestly, I didn't think it would come to this for Stoops. I thought he would strip Heupel of his play-calling duties but retain him as a position coach. I thought he'd try to help Norvell find another job and ease the transition instead of just letting him go. But you could argue this OU team lost three or four more games than was expected, so that's naturally going to up the pressure and the calls for change. Stoops made it clear on Tuesday you can't accuse him of cronyism with this staff. He just dismissed two coaches he deeply cares about. Can't be easy, but I can see why Sooner supporters wanted a shakeup in some form or fashion.

Trotter: Were Heupel and Norvell necessarily deserving of losing their jobs? No. But did Stoops have to make a drastic change to his staff to appease the administration and donor base? No doubt. Blood is thicker than water, which made changes to the offense a little more palpable, even though Mike Stoops' defense had the more disappointing season. The fact is, the majority of Norvell's recruits failed to pan out (can you imagine if Jalen Saunders and Justin Brown hadn't transferred to OU?). Heupel, meanwhile, struggled to transition calling plays for the zone-read pistol scheme Bob Stoops demanded he install two years ago. The Sooners had to make a change. And that came at the expense of Heupel and Norvell.

Should OU make changes to the defensive side, too?

Chatmon: Now that the first steps have been taken with Norvell and Heupel shown the door, some changes on the defensive side of the ball might be a good idea. New ideas and new blood wouldn't hurt for a defense that finished No. 117 among FBS teams in passing defense. Jerry Montgomery's promotion to co-defensive coordinator is a great first step, and I don't think defensive coordinator Mike Stoops' removal is the right move as he has an eye for talent. I don't like calling for people's jobs but linebackers coach Tim Kish could be in the crosshairs, and if he left the program it wouldn't be a crippling blow.

Olson: You do get the sense that more change could be on the way, and I can understand why Bob Stoops wouldn't want to roll that out all at once. It's about optics, really -- you don't want the perception among recruits and boosters that OU is officially in the rebuilding business. Mike Stoops and Montgomery should feel safe but, really, why should any other member of that defensive staff feel the same? The Stoops brothers can and probably should seek assistants who can bring in new ideas and get more out of what I think is a talented defensive cast.

Trotter: Did anyone else find it a bit curious in that Bob's primary justification for keeping his brother on staff was the defense returned nine starters? What would have happened if the Sooners had graduated nine starters instead? Firing both playcallers would have reeked of desperation. So it's understandable why Mike Stoops is being retained. But OU needs to upgrade its overall talent level (Montgomery can't recruit for the entire defense alone). Bringing in a couple of young assistants who can grind on the trail, like Montgomery, would do wonders.

What offensive coordinator should Stoops go after?

Chatmon: East Carolina's Lincoln Riley is a name that immediately comes to mind. ECU led the American Conference in total yards (533), yards per play (6.48) and third down conversion rate (47.4 percent) with Riley running things. Riley's experience is just as important, as a offensive coordinator with five years calling plays and running the Pirates' offense for Ruffin McNeil's program. Stoops should look at Riley as an answer to OU's offensive ills.

Olson: If I were Stoops, I'd reach out to Jake Spavital at Texas A&M. He's a rising young offensive mind who'd offer a wealth of knowledge about Air Raid ball -- the Tulsa native has worked for Kevin Sumlin, Dana Holgorsen, Mike Gundy and Gus Malzahn -- and would bring a new jolt that these Sooners have been missing. He could be great for the development of Trevor Knight and the rest of this program's passers, and better yet, what if five-star A&M recruit Kyler Murray could follow him to Norman? The top dual-threat QB in the country is tight with Spavital and visited OU this fall. The Sooners need an innovator and Spav could be a great fit.

Trotter: Riley and Spavital are interesting names the Sooners should reach out to. But I would also make a call to TCU co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie (my apologies, TCU fans). Cumbie hasn't called plays before. But he oversaw the transformation of Trevone Boykin, who went from being a below average Big 12 quarterback to one of the best in the country. Cumbie is a rising star in the coaching profession. Snatching him up from a Big 12 rival would be a coup.
video
NORMAN, Okla. -- Immediately after suffering one of the most embarrassing defeats of his career, Bob Stoops took a defiant tone in the catacombs of the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

He pointed out his consecutive eight-game winning seasons. He referenced the conference championships of years past. And he mentioned, yet again, the Sugar Bowl.

Tuesday, however, in an unprecedented end-of-season press conference, Stoops struck a far different chord.

“I want to start off expressing my disappointment and anger at the way this season went,” he said first. “I take accountability, responsibility for all of it. It starts with me and ends with me. ... I’m more determined than ever to get Oklahoma back in the position to competing for national championships. I promise you I’m as dedicated and committed as I ever have been since the day I walked in here. I have a lot invested in this program and no one cares about it more than I do, and I’m anxious and excited moving forward to make improvements and get us back in the position where we’re competing for national championships.”

Those are the words Sooner fans have been waiting for Stoops to say. Words of Acknowledgment. Fight. Determination.

And taking it even further, Stoops backed up that talk with action.

Days before the press conference, Stoops terminated a play-caller for the first time in 16 years, firing offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, who had been a member of Stoops’ staff for a decade and the quarterback on his 2000 national championship team.

Stoops also let go of co-offensive coordinator and longtime receivers coach Jay Norvell.

"It’s tough. I hate it for them,” Stoops said. “But I feel moving forward, we needed to go in a different direction.”

The direction Oklahoma has trended triggered such a drastic change.

The Sooners haven’t won a national championship since 2000.

Haven’t played for a national title since 2008.

Haven’t won an outright conference title since 2010.

Haven’t shared a conference title since 2012.

Sure, as Stoops has alluded to over and over -- including Tuesday -- Oklahoma defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to finish ranked sixth in the polls last season. But that has proven to be an outlier in a downward trajectory for a program that once dominated the Big 12 and contended for national titles almost annually.

With a horde of starters back and the momentum of the spectacular bowl performance, the Sooners opened this season with hopes of climbing back to its rightful perch among the nation’s elite. Instead, Oklahoma suffered through the most disheartening season of the Stoops era, which ended with a 40-6 loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

Stoops asserted Tuesday he still believed Oklahoma to be an elite program. But elite programs don’t lose by almost five touchdowns twice in the same season.

"We didn't do a good enough job," Stoops said. "I didn't do a good enough job.”

Stoops added he’s had several sleepless nights since the Clemson debacle. And he came to the conclusion he needed to shake up the program more than ever before.

“A lot of thought and consideration has gone into every part of our program,” he said. “I thought about this a lot. I’m hopeful this will give us a strong boost.”

Just a couple hundred miles to the south, TCU showed everyone this year just what boost a couple of home-run assistant coaching hires can give a program.

Stoops and the Sooners now have the same opportunity.

After years of steady decline, Stoops is bringing change to Oklahoma. Change he couldn't wait for any longer.

Big 12 morning links

September, 19, 2014
9/19/14
8:00
AM ET
Well, if it's any consolation, Kansas State probably would've beaten the Bucs on Thursday night. On to the links:
  • Kansas State players walked away from their 20-14 loss to No. 5 Auburn with an understandable message: "We should have won that game." The Wildcats were given every opportunity to win that game, even after their three missed field goals, but made way too many mistakes. Regardless of the result, I have to agree with the Kansas City Star's Blair Kerkhoff when he writes that we need more games like that one in college football.
  • The departure of defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt at Texas Tech is just the latest in a long, frustrating run of coaching changes for the Red Raiders. Don Williams of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal looked back on those changes and Kliff Kingsbury's need for continuity. I'm not ready to write off Mike Smith, because I think he can get the buy-in from players, but no doubt this was another bizarre twist for the Tech coaching carousel.
  • Two good West Virginia reads for your Friday: Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman went to Morgantown to examine Dana Holgorsen's increasingly comfortable fit with West Virginia. Now that WVU has weathered the conference change and its depth is back in order, Holgorsen and Luck seem genuinely happy with where the program is heading. Also enjoyed this examination of Clint Trickett's perfectionist mentality by Allan Taylor of MetroNews. Trickett didn't think he played "worth a damn" against Maryland and saw only the plays he didn't make, despite surpassing 500 yards. Not shocking, coming from a coach's kid, but it's clear his recent success won't go to his head.
  • The fact this meeting with Central Michigan is a big-time, high-stakes game for Kansas is not lost on its players. Jesse Newell of The Topeka Capital-Journal wrote on KU's issue with emotional letdowns and inconsistent effort through two games. The veterans seem mad in the right way. But are they going to get 100 percent from everyone else? They're about to find out what kind of leadership they have.
  • Lastly, the report from E.J. Holland of Dave Campbell's Texas Football that Oklahoma co-OC Josh Heupel is a candidate for the SMU job is intriguing. Doesn't mean there's been contact or mutual interest, just that Heupel is evidently on the radar. I'm of the opinion that the Mustangs need to go with a young, exciting coordinator who can recruit the Metroplex and the rest of Texas like crazy. From that standpoint, there are better candidates than Heupel out there, but would many have interest? If Clemson's Chad Morris is ready to make the jump, SMU probably needs to pursue him as Plan A before everybody else does.
Oklahoma opened the season with unknowns at running back.

In Keith Ford, Alex Ross and Samaje Perine, the Sooners backfield featured plenty of talent but no proven commodities that made fans in Norman, Oklahoma, feel good about their running back.

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiKeith Ford scored two touchdowns against Louisiana Tech as part of Oklahoma's three-headed running back attack.
One game into the 2014 season, all three running backs look like they could be the man if needed after the Sooners rushed for 183 yards, 5.8 yards per carry, and five touchdowns in OU’s 48-16 win over Louisiana Tech.

“I thought our young running backs were all really, really good,” OU coach Bob Stoops said. “Every one of them were 100 percent assignment correct. They protected the quarterback when they had to. They knew where they were going in routes. They caught the ball exceptionally well and, of course, ran the ball in a very physical way. They made some great cuts and took care of the football.”

Ford built upon a solid freshman campaign with decisive running combining with a solid showing as pass catcher and pass blocker. He finished with nine carries for 51 yards (5.7 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. Ross displayed terrific speed and versatility as a running back and kick returner, adding 11 carries for 36 yards (3.27 ypc) two touchdowns along with an 80-yard kick return. Perine lived up to the hype, showing a physical running style that resembled the physicality of a fifth-year senior -- not a true freshman in his first collegiate game -- finishing with 13 carries for 77 yards.

The numbers are just part of the story. Ford, Ross and Perine combine to fit perfectly into the Sooners’ offense.

“I love our backs, I think our backs really fit our style of running game,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “We do a lot of downhill running with the zone read and some of our triple-option stuff and our backs really fit that style. Keith, Alex and Samaje are a great trio of physical downhill runners that we can pour at a defense.”

That’s exactly what the Sooners did against La. Tech, with 22 rushes for 95 yards (4.3 ypc) and four touchdowns between the tackles. Perine excelled between the tackles with five carries for 37 yards, while Ford was outstanding as well with seven carries for 42 yards and two touchdowns.

“We’ve always done a lot of power running,” Stoops said. “This isn’t anything different or new.”

The threat of the inside run will be the foundation of everything the Sooners will try to accomplish offensively this season, opening up oppotunities for quarterback Trevor Knight and the Sooners' passing game while also preventing defenses from focusing on slowing OU's perimeter running game.

“To be able to have a defense respect us going north and south allows us to hit the perimeter,” Norvell said. “It’s really exciting, we have a physical line, physical runners and when you add the perimeter game and what we can do with the screen game.

“It gives us a fastball to work off of offensively.”

The result was 14 rushes for 66 yards and two touchdowns on option plays against La. Tech. Additionally, Ford and Ross combined for six receptions for 96 yards, showing their versatility while reminding defenses they can be just as dangerous in the passing game.

Ford, Ross and Perine are building reputations as physical runners, but ultimately their versatility and desire to become complete running backs could help them transform into one of the best trios in the nation before the season is over. None of them are close to finished products, but their hunger to master details such as pass protection and ball security are at the heart of the coaching staff’s growing trust in each running back.

“They are approaching the game like they want to be a complete back,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “They are a work in progress. I love that they do come to work, and that was on the practice field and in the weight room this summer. They attack things in the right way.”
At some point this weekend, Dravon Henry will trot onto the field against SEC power Alabama. It will be baptism under fire for West Virginia's true freshman safety.

He's not alone.

More and more, true freshman skill position players are stepping on campus ready to take jobs and play immediately at schools across the Big 12.

Seven of the nine Big 12 schools that play this weekend had released their depth charts by Tuesday afternoon. Twenty-two true freshman find themselves on those depth charts at skill positions around the conference with every school featuring at least one true freshman on its depth chart.

TCU and Oklahoma lead the league with five apiece while ISU receiver Allen Lazard is the lone true freshman skill position player on the Cyclones depth chart. Coaches at Kansas, Oklahoma State and Texas — the other three schools — have already said they have true freshmen are in set to play for them at the skill positions in 2014.

The growth of pass-heavy spread offenses, increased summer and offseason football -- specifically 7-on-7 competitions -- and elite camps like The Opening are at the heart of the increased readiness of true freshman. Henry and Texas Tech cornerback Tevin Madison are the lone true freshman to earn a starting spot heading into the season but that duo is could be joined by other impressive freshmen -- like Lazard, Kansas running back Corey Avery or Kansas State safety Kaleb Prewitt -- in their squad's starting lineup at some point this season.

The additional offseason work's ability to help groom quarterbacks is well-documented but those extra reps are helping receivers, running backs and defensive backs as well.

"All the skill players, receivers, quarterbacks, tight ends, they all grow up throwing the football," Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "So they're much more developed at an early age. We're seeing that we can do things with freshman that we could never do before because a lot of them have been doing it in high school."

Recruits step on campus having been seasoned in competitive situations like never before. Their understanding of offensive concepts gained in high school makes transitions to similar systems in college easier than before.

"As much as anything it's the offenses they're growing up in," OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. "They're playing in those [offenses] 365 days of the year. You go to certain parts of the country and they're practicing every day. They're growing up in those systems."

The state of Texas is at the forefront of trend with everything from weather and strong high school coaching helping to prepare signees to play from Day 1 at Big 12 schools.

"With the 7-on-7 aspect and the level of high school coaching in the state of Texas helps us," Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "They're throwing the year round, they're catching the ball year round, quarterbacks go through reads year round, so by the time they get to us, they're college ready.

"As far as throwing, catching and seeing defenses, they're more prepared than ever."

The rise of elite national and regional football camps could also be helping to increase the readiness of true freshmen. Players like OU's Michiah Quick, a 2013 participant in The Opening who is listed as a backup slot receiver and punt returner for the Sooners, are stepping on campuses across the country having been tested in ways they had not been a decade ago.

"I think anytime you get to go against competition, you're going to come out more confident if you have a good showing," Kingsbury said. "The kids we have that have attended such camps come out of it knowing they belong and they fit in."
Bob Stoops chuckled before answering the question.

"I thought they were kind of small," Oklahoma's veteran coach said during Big 12 media days last month after being asked about trying to replace the Sooners "big" trio of running backs.

Big, small or otherwise, there's no doubting the production of three departed running backs leaves a major hole in the Sooners backfield.

Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch combined for 1,857 of OU's 2,911 rushing yards in 2013. The Sooners return 153 rushing yards from running backs currently on the roster in Keith Ford's 134 and Alex Ross' 19.

[+] EnlargeKeith Ford
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiKeith Ford is Oklahoma's top returning running back, having rushed for 134 yards last season as a freshman.
The running back position is arguably the biggest concern on the Sooners' offense heading into this season. Ford looked poised to have a bigger impact as a true freshman last season, but fumble troubles landed him in the doghouse. Ross never quite forced his way into the lineup as a redshirt freshman. Freshman Samaje Perine stepped on campus as a ESPN300 running back and has the talent to join Ford and Ross as key members of OU's running game, but OU's depth at the position took a hit when fellow freshman Joe Mixon was suspended earlier this week.

Clay, Williams and Finch combined for 348 total carries last season, so plenty of opportunities remain for what could be the Sooners' new trio of Ford, Ross and Perine.

But nobody has separated as at the No. 1 guy during preseason camp. And the Sooners don't expect that to change before they kick off the season against Louisiana Tech on Aug. 30.

"They're all getting snaps now and we'll see how they do early," Stoops said. "A lot will be determined in what they do in their initial opportunities."

Ford is a physical, tough runner, who forced his way onto the field despite having three seniors in Clay, Williams and Finch standing between himself and playing time as a true freshman. He entered the offseason as the favorite to slide into the starting lineup and remains in line to be play a significant role.

Ross brings a terrific size/speed combination to the offensive backfield and was one of the Sooners' stars of the spring.

Perine is the wild card, bringing a big back option to the table at 5-foot-11 and 243 pounds. The No. 220 player in the ESPN300, he appears ready to make an immediate impact as a true freshman.

"He's one of the freshman that has an opportunity to contribute," co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "He's a big physical kid, he's taking care of the football and we're gaining confidence in him every day. He runs with his pads very well and he's learned quickly. Kids that play as freshman carry themselves with maturity. And he's done that."

Ford and Ross are likely to sit first in the queue on game day. But, after that, all bets are off.

"You'll find out, sometimes with a running back, when the lights come on, in the [middle] of action how they'll respond," offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. "Ultimately on game day we're going to find out who the guy is."
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.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTrevor Knight's versatility is one of the reasons why Oklahoma has a diverse offense.
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."

TCU’s future starting quarterback might have spent his spring in College Station, Texas.

It’s possible Texas' next starter hasn’t even moved to Austin yet.

And half the teams in the Big 12 still haven't officially named a starter for the 2014 season.

[+] EnlargeJ.W. Walsh
AP Photo/Brody SchmidtJ.W. Walsh showed comfort and patience this spring, emerging as the clear favorite to become Oklahoma State's starting quarterback.
But while quarterback continues to be the Big 12’s biggest moving part, the spring brought at least some clarity to the position across the league.

After losing the job last season, J.W. Walsh retook a commanding lead in Oklahoma State’s third quarterback derby in as many years.

Grant Rohach built off his strong finish last season to head into the summer as the clear frontrunner at Iowa State.

And even though Clint Trickett sat out the spring recovering from a shoulder injury, none of West Virginia’s other spring contenders could unseat him from the top of the depth chart.

Elsewhere, Kansas surprisingly named sophomore Montell Cozart as its starter days after he outshined incumbent Jake Heaps and UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard in the Jayhawks’ spring game.

And Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight and Texas Tech’s Davis Webb rode the momentum of their breakout bowl performances to spring improvement.

Even the two schools with the biggest quarterback questions received some possible panaceas this spring.

Matt Joeckel, Johnny Manziel’s backup at Texas A&M the last two seasons, revealed two weeks ago that he would be transferring to TCU, where he’ll be eligible immediately. The Horned Frogs, who are installing an up-tempo offense similar to one Joeckel played in with the Aggies, ended spring with Trevone Boykin as their No. 1 quarterback, even though Boykin finished last year as a receiver.

To the south, another high-profile transfer could soon be following Joeckel to the Big 12. Since announcing he was transferring from USC, Max Wittek has visited Texas three times, including the Longhorns’ spring game. Wittek would be eligible right away as well, and with David Ash out for now with a fractured foot, Wittek could viably challenge to become Texas’ opening game starter.

Such positive developments at the most critical of positions are welcome developments for a league that struggled and juggled at quarterback through much of the 2013 season. In fact, Baylor’s Bryce Petty was the only Big 12 quarterback to start every game for his team last season.

Petty, who was on the short list of Heisman contenders until November, will again be the class of the league at quarterback.

But he should have plenty more company this season, beginning with Kansas State's Jake Waters, who improved as much as any quarterback in the country did over the course of last season. In leading the Wildcats to victories in six of their final seven games, Waters actually produced a higher Adjusted QBR rating than Petty during the same stretch.

Kansas State coach Bill Snyder came away impressed with the confidence Waters carried throughout the spring, which included a crisp effort in the spring game minus his favorite receiver, Tyler Lockett, who sat out the scrimmage with a minor injury.

“He just understands things a lot better,” Snyder said. “He has gained more confidence, probably just because of going through the process of going through some growing pains.”

Both Walsh and Rohach also went through growing pains last season.

But after a jittery sophomore campaign in which he eventually lost the starting job back to Clint Chelf in October, Walsh re-established himself this spring and performed with the poise he did two years ago as a freshman to emerge as the favorite to become the Cowboys' starter again.

“J.W. has become more of a leader,” offensive tackle Daniel Koenig said after Oklahoma State’s “Orange Blitz” scrimmage. “He’s staying in the pocket more, which is good. Maybe a year or two years ago, he’d get nervous back there and start scrambling. But now he’s sitting in there and throwing.”

Rohach, who finished off the 2013 season by leading Iowa State to a come-from-behind, triple-overtime victory at West Virginia, also showed more confidence this spring, leading Iowa State on three of its six scoring drives in the spring game. Coach Paul Rhoads said he’d wait until mid-August before declaring a starter, but Rohach seems to have the clear edge over Sam B. Richardson and Joel Lanning heading into the summer.

"To begin [the spring], coming off that huge game against West Virginia, putting pressure on myself, my first few practices weren't very good," Rohach said. "But as spring ball went on I shrugged off those mistakes, and I think I got a lot better."

Webb and Knight also used their final performances of last season to springboard into their second springs on campus.

Webb has been especially impressive since earning MVP honors in the Red Raiders' National University Holiday Bowl victory over Arizona State. In Texas Tech’s three spring open scrimmages, he tossed 13 touchdowns with no interceptions.

“He is night and day from what he was at this time last year,” Red Raiders coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “I am really impressed with him.”

With a limited playbook and a no-contact jersey, Knight had a lackluster showing in Oklahoma’s spring game, and was actually outplayed by Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield. But behind closed practices, the Sooners liked the development they saw from their sophomore quarterback, who last torched two-time defending national champ Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

“He’s continued to make strides,” Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “It’s not even like he played perfect in the Sugar Bowl -- there are things he missed in that game. He’s by no means a finished product.”

The quarterback position in the Big 12 is by no means a finished product, either, coming out of the spring. But the position looks better -- and clearer -- now than it did just two months ago.
Big 12 teams rejoice.

For the first time in four years, Oklahoma faces the proposition of a season without Trey Millard as a critical piece of its offense and special teams.

[+] EnlargeDimitri Flowers
Tom Hauck for Student SportsWhile only a 3-star recruit, Dimitri Flowers' versatility stood out to scouts.
The former Sooner earned a reputation as one of the conference’s most physical and versatile players as a four-year starter and could easily be considered the hardest player to replace in the Big 12. Millard ran like a running back, blocked like an offensive lineman and covered kicks like a linebacker. Locating guys like Millard is nearly an impossible task.

The Sooners hope they found a similar hidden gem in early enrollee Dimitri Flowers. He starred all over the field at San Antonio Churchill, making plays as a running back, tight end and defensive end. Flowers, at 6-foot-1, 234 pounds, has been earmarked for a Millard-type role as a hybrid tight end and running back and is already impressing coaches and teammates with his versatility.

“He’s one of the most skilled, well-rounded guys that I’ve seen come into our program,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “His ability to play in line and in space as an H-back, motion guy, [and] he does a great job of catching the football and he’s extremely bright for a young kid coming into your program.”

Flowers was called “as versatile as any player in high school” by ESPN.com recruiting experts, who rated him as a three-star athlete with “above average” size, speed and strength.

It would be asking a lot for Flowers to step right into the Sooners plan and have a similar impact as Millard, who essentially forced the coaching staff to find an immediate role for him as a true freshman. Fortunately for OU, it doesn’t need him to make an similar impact with former walk-on Aaron Ripkowski already proving he can be a core contributor as a fullback/tight end after Millard missed the end of the 2013 season with a knee injury.

Nonetheless, Flowers still could provide superb depth and play a special teams role this fall, particularly if he makes a smooth transition to college football and can handle the little details that can be the difference between seeing the field or watching from the sideline.

“He came in [as] a really good [player],” sophomore running back Keith Ford said. “He’s adjusted to the speed and the things I’ve seen with the catching the ball and pass blocking, he’s picking it up fast.”

OU used Millard and Ripkowski together at various times in 2012 and 2013 so it’s not out of the question for Flowers to have a role in the Sooners’ offensive plans with a strong showing this spring.

“He’s a really versatile player, very young, but a lot of great qualities,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “A lot of our best players can do a lot of things and he’s showing a lot of versatility on the field. He’s green as grass, he doesn’t know much but he’s a good athlete and he can play for us so we’re excited to have him.”

QB supremacy on its way back to Big 12

February, 24, 2014
2/24/14
9:00
AM ET
Since the turn of the millennium, the Big 12 has forged a national identity of elite quarterbacking. In fact, dating back to 2000, the Big 12 had a quarterback become a Heisman finalist in every season but three.

Last season, however, that identity all but vanished.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsOklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight torched Alabama for 348 passing yards and four touchdowns in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Bryce Petty briefly emerged into a Heisman contender at Baylor. But otherwise it was a dismal season for quarterbacking according to the Big 12’s high standards. Oklahoma State’s Clint Chelf was named the league’s second-team quarterback despite starting only half of 2013. Nine of the league’s 10 teams juggled starting quarterbacks well into October.

But thanks to breakout performances during the bowl season, coupled with the imminent arrival of numerous blue-chip freshmen, the conference appears on the way back to restoring its quarterbacking reputation heading into spring practice.

Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Texas Tech have their starters cemented. Oklahoma State, Texas, TCU and West Virginia will welcome true freshmen with the pedigrees and opportunities to compete for jobs right away. And Kansas (Montell Cozart) and Iowa State (Grant Rohach) enjoyed promising moments from a pair of freshmen.

After totaling 46 touchdowns to just three interceptions in his first season as the starter, Petty headlines the position in the league again.

But if the bowl season was any indication, he won’t be the lone headliner.

Oklahoma freshman Trevor Knight torched Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl to the level backup Blake Bell asked to change his position to tight end.

In the National University Holiday Bowl, Texas Tech freshman Davis Webb lit up Arizona State, too, driving Michael Brewer to ask for a transfer.

And Kansas State’s Jake Waters capped a red-hot second half of his season by throwing for three touchdowns in a rout of Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

Knight, Webb and Waters delivered three of college football’s 10 best bowl performances according to the Adjusted QBR metric. All three rapidly improved in their first seasons. And that rapid improvement figures only to continue in their second.

“Traditionally, Year 2 in the offense is when you see the most growth in a quarterback,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said.

Of the three, Knight was the only full-time starter to begin the season. Spearheaded by a dazzling preseason, he beat out Bell, who was the favorite to replace four-year starter Landry Jones. But Knight completed just 21 of his first 48 pass attempts, and after a knee injury, lost the job to Bell not even two games in.

Knight, however, emerged late in the season, and displaying improvement with his accuracy, led the Sooners to a late November win at Kansas State. Then in the Sugar Bowl, he finally showed why he won the job originally in August. Against one of the nation’s most dominant defenses, Knight completed 32 of 44 passes as the Sooners toppled the Crimson Tide in one of the biggest upsets in BCS bowl history.

“If you’re going to win a championship, your quarterback is going to have to make plays,” Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “We all saw Trevor [struggle] as a young freshman, first start, first game. To see him grow throughout the entire year and play extremely well down the stretch and played really well in the Sugar Bowl, obviously -- he’s obviously got a great future.”

[+] EnlargeDavis Webb
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesTexas Tech signal-caller Davis Webb had a breakout performance against Arizona State, completing 28 of 41 passes for 403 yards and four touchdowns in the win.
The same goes for Webb.

Despite being the only healthy scholarship quarterback on the roster in August, Webb was beaten out by walk-on true freshman Baker Mayfield. But like Knight, Webb settled in behind the scenes. After Mayfield injured his knee, Webb led Tech to a come-from-behind win at West Virginia. Then, after Mayfield transferred, Webb was almost flawless against the Sun Devils. He passed for 403 yards and four touchdowns as Texas Tech controlled the game the entire night.

“The success he had in that bowl game against one of the top defenses showed what he can be,” Kingsbury said.

Waters’ bowl success showed the same.

Out of junior college, Waters beat out Daniel Sams for the starting job to begin the season. But with Waters taking the majority of the snaps, K-State fell in its season opener to FCS opponent North Dakota State. The next two months weren’t much better for Waters or the Wildcats, as the defending Big 12 champs stumbled to a 2-4 start.

But after losing snaps to Sams, Waters reestablished control of the position and quarterbacked K-State to wins in six of its final seven games, including a 31-14 rout of Michigan in the bowl. Waters had his best outing yet, too, completing 78 percent of his passes for three touchdowns.

While Waters, Webb and Knight will be looking to build off their bowl performances this spring, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph will be looking to win a job. Perhaps the most highly acclaimed quarterback the Cowboys have ever signed, Rudolph had a monster senior season in Rock Hill, S.C., throwing for 64 touchdowns while leading his team to a state championship. Enrolled for spring ball, the ESPN 300 recruit will challenge J.W. Walsh.

“Mason really brings all of the characteristics you want to see in a quarterback,” Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said. “All of the intangibles.”

Plenty more quarterback talent is on its way, too.

Texas’ Jerrod Heard, West Virginia’s William Crest and TCU’s Foster Sawyer were also four-star recruits in the 2014 class, and they will be joining their schools in the summer with chances to play right away.

Such opportunities exist because the Big 12 quarterback play was down last season. But heading to spring, the league’s most identifiable position is on its way back up.

Two QB approach could spark Sooners

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
11:00
AM ET
NORMAN, Okla. -- It’s rare that uncertainty transforms into something positive.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Knight could force Alabama's defense to sell out to stop the run.
For Oklahoma, the lack of clarity at the quarterback position could become useful against Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Sooners played three different quarterbacks during their 33-24 win over Oklahoma State in Bedlam and have struggled to get consistent play at the position despite finishing 10-2 in the regular season.

During Bedlam, the Sooners offense was running the option and zone read plays with quarterback Trevor Knight during the first quarter and running a four-receiver, spread attack with Blake Bell at various times during in the second half after Knight left the game due to an injury. Having to defend both styles seemed to create problems for the Cowboys’ defense, which finished among the Big 12’s best this season.

Using both offensive approaches against the Crimson Tide could help challenge Nick Saban’s defense, which led the SEC in points per game allowed (11.3) and yards per play allowed (4.73).

The Sooners don’t plan to name a starting quarterback before the game.

“That will be a game-time decision,” coach Bob Stoops said.

It might not matter who takes the first snap in New Orleans. While Alabama would have had plenty of time to prepare for all the variations the Sooners' offense has shown this season, OU would be wise to take an Bedlam-like approach.

“We used a little bit of everything the last ball game,” Sooners offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “We mixed and matched. Some of it was planned and some of it wasn’t.”

Knight started the game against OSU, as OU looked to use its quarterback run-game attack featuring option runs and zone read plays to take advantage of the redshirt freshman’s speed and athleticism. A similar approach against Alabama will force the Crimson Tide to account for Knight and help the Sooners win the numbers game in the box. In other words, Knight’s ability to run could make it easier to attack an Alabama defense that allowed just 108.33 rushing yards per game. The Crimson Tide are likely to sell out to stop the run with so Knight undoubtedly will have to make them pay with his arm for OU to have success.

With Bell, OU’s offense takes a different approach. The junior earned the nickname “Belldozer” thanks to his short-yardage running as a freshman and sophomore but OU turns to the passing game when he's taking the snap. Against OSU, Bell often came in on third down to throw the ball and he led the Sooners on their game-winning drive in the final minutes. Against Alabama, that offense could be used to help keep the Crimson Tide honest. OU’s running game has been, by far, the most consistent aspect of its offense. But the passing success with Bell under center during Bedlam provided some hope for OU’s offense.

“We’re finding who gives us the best chance in the style of offense we’re in and gives us the best chance to have success,” Heupel said.

With Knight at the helm, OU averages 15 pass attempts per game. With Bell under center, the Sooners average 21.1 pass attempts per contest. Combining the two attacks makes sense, particularly since the rest of the Sooners' offense has gotten comfortable running both offenses.

“You try to put those guys in the position to look successful,” Heupel said. “We’ll have a mixture of a little bit of everything at the Sugar Bowl to give ourselves a chance to win the ball game.”

No matter what offense the Sooners run, execution will be critical. OU will have to win individual battles in the trenches against an supremely-talented Crimson Tide defense and show it can make plays on the ground and through the air or risk having Alabama’s defense overwhelm and shut down OU’s offense.

“With our coaching staff, I feel like we’re going to develop a really good plan that will give us a good shot,” Knight said. “If we go out there and execute the way we can, I think we’ll be okay.”

Jalen Saunders soars as a Sooner

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
11:00
AM ET
NORMAN, Okla. — It was a perfect fit.

Receiver Jalen Saunders was searching for a home in early 2012, looking to transfer from Fresno State after two seasons with the Bulldogs. Oklahoma was looking for a veteran receiver, hopeful to replace the departed Ryan Broyles, the NCAA’s all-time reception leader.

After a tip from former New Mexico State coach Dwayne Walker, Sooners receivers coach Jay Norvell got in touch with Saunders and convinced him that Norman, Okla., was the place to spend his final two seasons. Saunders quickly became one of OU’s top receiving threats and he’s put himself in position to be the fourth Sooners receiver selected in the NFL draft in the last three years, joining Broyles, Justin Brown and Kenny Stills.

[+] EnlargeJalen Saunders
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiJalen Saunders turned out to be a perfect fit for Oklahoma, and vice versa.
OU received an explosive threat who has proven ability to change games. Saunders received added exposure and better competition week in and week out. Saunders' decision to finish his career at OU has paid off.

“Oklahoma has a great legacy behind its name and there have been a lot of greats come through here,” Saunders said. “Adrian Peterson, Ryan Broyles and Sam Bradford -- the list goes on and on. So this is just a great program to come out of.”

Entering the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Saunders has 198 career receptions on 295 targets for 3,010 yards and 24 touchdowns. In 21 games at OU, the senior has 118 receptions for 1,483 yards and nine touchdowns, with 61.9 percent of his receptions gaining a first down.

“Jalen has had a huge impact,” coach Bob Stoops said. “He has been a great player for us, explosive player, and a very consistent player, too. Every week he performs well and he plays hard and always has that ability to make big plays.”

Saunders is playing his best in a crimson and cream uniform during his final few games as a Sooner. He changed the game with a punt return for a touchdown against Iowa State, sparking a 48-10 win. He led OU with seven receptions for 95 yards in a 41-31 win over Kansas State and saved his best for last, catching the game-winning touchdown against Oklahoma State and added a critical punt return in the Sooners’ 33-24 win over the Cowboys to help earn the Sugar Bowl bid.

“He’s ratcheting it up,” Norvell said. “He sees the end coming and he really is dialed in to how he can help this team. We’re moving him around a little bit more; we’re putting him in different spots. Sometimes when you’re a college football coach you start seeing the end with some guys and you want to get as much out of him as you can. But he’s a really good player. He’s really tough for a little guy and we just are trying to use him up here these last few weeks and put him in good spots.”

During OU’s last five games, Saunders has 27 receptions for 376 yards and three touchdowns, six punt returns for 192 yards and two scores (32 yards per return) and a 55-yard kickoff return.

“He’s played a major role in our success down the stretch,” co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel.

The senior’s production helped earn him an invitation to the Senior Bowl, where he will get a chance to prove himself in front of NFL scouts and coaches. Questions about his size (5-foot-9, 157 pounds) will undoubtedly hurt his NFL stock, but he can start answering those questions in Mobile, Ala. in late January.

Norvell, who coached in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts and Oakland Raiders, believes Saunders can be an NFL receiver.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” Norvell said. “I think he’s really showing he can do a lot of things very well as a punt returner and a route-runner. I think they like his toughness. He’s showing that he’ll mix it up. We use him in a lot of situations where you’d use a bigger receiver and he goes in there and throws his body around, so I’m probably most proud about that of him and just how he’s played the physical part of the game.”

Big 12 lunchtime links

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
12:00
PM ET
In case you missed anything, here are some highlights from the final week of Big 12 football.

Bell, Sooners excel on final drive

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
11:00
AM ET
It would have been hard to find anyone not dressed in crimson and cream who were expecting Oklahoma to cruise down the field in less than two minutes to score the game-winning touchdown in the Sooners’ 33-24 win over Oklahoma State last Saturday.

OU’s offense had three passing first downs and was averaging 4.63 yards per play before that final drive. Yet, the Sooners matched their previous output with three first downs on the final drive, averaging 7.13 yards per play on an eight-play scoring march (they added a defensive touchdown on the game’s final play).

Here’s a closer look at five key plays, after a film study review of the game, that transformed the Sooners from a potential three-loss squad to BCS bowl participant.

Sterling Shepard’s 9-yard catch on the drive’s first play. A good play call and design got Shepard loose on a receiver screen pass. The sophomore faked outside on a swing pass then dipped inside to catch the ball with three blockers ahead of him. Only a terrific tackle by OSU linebacker Joe Mitchell kept the play from being a big gainer. It was the perfect way to start the drive because it gave Blake Bell and the rest of the Sooners’ offense immediate confidence.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
J.P. Wilson/Icon SMIBlake Bell came up big when the Sooners needed him.
Bell’s perfect throw to Shepard on the next play: On the second play of the drive, Bell showed tremendous touch on a 18-yard completion to Shepard. The Cowboys rushed three defenders and dropped eight, hoping to force Bell to thread a pass into a tiny window between coverage in a zone defense in order to get a completion. And Bell did it to perfection with touch on a throw over the outstretched arms of Mitchell but in front of safety Daytawion Lowe. Shepard, the overlooked hero on the drive, did a terrific job holding onto the ball despite Lowe’s hit. It was a clear sign that Bell was stepping up in the moment and sent the message that the Sooners could be on a march for a touchdown, not just a field goal.

OSU cornerback Justin Gilbert’s non-interception: After the Sooners had moved the ball to the OSU 30-yard line, Gilbert appeared to intercept Bell by outleaping Lacoltan Bester for the ball. But Bester continued to fight, pulling Gilbert’s right arm as the pair hit the ground, to knock the football out of Gilbert’s hands. It was a call that could have gone either way, so the awareness to go up tempo and the execution of a play immediately was the difference. That ability took the option to review the play and reverse the on-field call away from OSU coach Mike Gundy and the officiating crew upstairs. Even though OU hasn’t used it much in games this season, it’s unlikely a team that does not practice tempo, or is not prepared to execute in pressure situations, would have been able to eliminate a potential review. The quick recognition of the scenario and ability to run a play that quickly was easily the best thing OU did on the entire drive.

Bell connects with Saunders on third-and-10: The Sooners quarterback had plenty of time to simply stand in the pocket but scrambled anyway and found Saunders for 13 yards just before he passed the line of scrimmage. It was clear Bell was looking the entire way for Saunders, who has been a third-down conversion machine in the second half of the season. But it was actually his decision to scramble that forced the first level of OSU’s zone defense to react, allowing Saunders to get open and make the key reception. Even though there was no reason to leave the pocket with OSU rushing just three defenders, Bell’s decision to do so allowed the conversion to happen.

Saunders’ game-winning touchdown: Give Bell a ton of credit. He knew before the snap that he had the matchup he wanted with Jalen Saunders lined up in man-to-man coverage with OSU safety Lyndell Johnson. Saunders is a nightmare for the Big 12’s top cornerbacks so having him matched up on a safety with a play call that Bell knew would have Saunders running away from Johnson on a corner route took all thinking out of the equation. It was all about the throw at that point. Bell had a clean pocket, thanks to Brennan Clay and the offensive line, and made a perfect throw to the corner of the end zone.

The Boone Pickens Stadium crowd was stunned, Baylor rejoiced and the Sooners seized the opportunity to earn a BCS berth. The silence in the Cowboys’ home stadium -- outside of the section of Sooners fans -- can be matched only by the silence of the critics of Bell and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel after those critical moments. Bell and Heupel stepped up when the program needed them the most, Heupel with a couple of exceptional play calls and Bell with terrific throws and decision-making on the final drive. In less than two minutes, OU’s offense went from preparing to answer questions about why it didn’t show up to being the reason the Sooners are Sugar Bowl-bound.

SPONSORED HEADLINES