Bob Stoops is closing in on 200 wins as a college head coach. He's won a national title and had five Top 5 finishes. The guy's won big as a big underdog, knocking off powerhouses when the experts said his teams didn't have a shot, and he's won big rivalry games in Game of the Year settings. So when I heard that late Saturday night Stoops said that the Sooners' win at Tennessee was "maybe my favorite" of all his wins, it surprised me.
On Sunday afternoon, I caught up with Stoops and asked him, now that he's had time for the game to sink in, why exactly this one was so special.
"Really?" he replied, as if it were obvious.
"102,000 people against you. You're behind the chains all day. You've got three forced fumbles and you get none of 'em. All of that, and you still have the will to win and the fight to win and you do win," he said. "We were in a hole all day. For our offense, our average starting field position for those first three quarters was probably the 15-yard line, and their starting position was midfield. We're behind the whole game in turnovers. Everything was against us. We played as poorly as we could with penalties and everything, and still won it. That's strong."
It's tempting to try to read perhaps too much into early season games. OU blasted the Vols last year in Norman (although that was a much younger UT team), and the Sooners reached No. 4 in the polls entering October, before fizzling out to an 8-5 season that culminated in a bunch of staff turnover. But perhaps it was the way OU won Saturday night, as Stoops detailed, that can serve as a better springboard than any blowout win could.
Keep in mind that in almost every championship season -- same as in Stoops' best season -- teams that produce some spirit-raising effort often propel themselves to another level. In 2000, the Sooners were down 24-10 to Texas A&M on the road in the third quarter and rallied to win 35-31. Two months later, OU, a 10.5-point underdog, upset FSU to win the national title.
Stoops knows he has some excellent leaders in his locker room. Wideout Sterling Shepard, again, proved why he's such a special college player, making one big play after another to spur the Sooners. "The guy is incredible," Stoops said. "Just look at the amount of big-time, competitive, tough plays he's made over the last two years. He's made a ton of 'em. He makes special plays that make differences in games over and over."
Better still, the OU QB picture appears to have crystallized late Saturday night. New starter Baker Mayfield struggled for much of the game, going 8 of 25 for 84 yards with two interceptions in the first three quarters. His backup, Trevor Knight -- a team captain and the former starter -- became a fixture for the TV cameras, but Stoops and first-year OC Lincoln Riley never wavered in sticking with Mayfield, who responded by going 11 of 14 for 103 yards with three touchdown passes, plus a touchdown run in the fourth quarter and overtime. Stoops said he really likes Mayfield's competitiveness and resilience, especially how he was keeping plays alive.
He also said there was never any discussion of making a quarterback change Saturday night.
"We were all in from the beginning," he said. "We figured he'd get a rhythm or figure it out. To throw a fresh guy in who hasn't had a feel for the game, nobody was looking to do that."
Even though the QB situation had been a big question mark heading into the season, for many the merits of OU's defense were as much of a concern, given how explosive Big 12 offenses are. Last year, the Sooners were just No. 52 in total defense and ranked 70th in giving up big plays (of 20 yards or longer). But this group now has playmakers at all three levels, with Charles Tapper anchoring the D-line; Devante Bond, Dominique Alexander and Eric Striker making plays at linebacker; and Steven Parker and Zack Sanchez leading in the secondary.
The Sooner defense allowed zero points and only 51 yards in the third and fourth quarters. Oklahoma held an explosive Tennessee attack to just eight total yards in the fourth quarter. Stoops was delighted with how his defense kept the team in the game at Tennessee. "It gave us that opportunity to be patient and not have to do anything drastic. The defense dominated. They got just 17 yards on 26 plays after the first two plays of the second half. That allows you to be patient and wait for it to happen."
As for Riley, the new play-caller and offensive coordinator, Stoops is excited about what he's seeing.
"He's done great getting a feel for our personnel, for what our people can do and can't do," he said. "It's a growing process. But I really like the direction it's going. We need to keep improving, but that's understandable.
"You want to start fast all the time, but you're not always going to.You just have to have confidence and faith in what you're doing, and we do."
Oklahoma hosts a potent Tulsa team this week that's averaging 609 yards per game before the Sooners begin the Big 12 schedule against West Virginia.
--There are no sure things when it comes to drafting QBs or assistants becoming head coaches. If you'd asked me which assistant was the safest pick to win big as a first-time head coach, I'd have said Tom Herman. Houston was my pick to be the top Group of Five team in the preseason, and while I think QB Greg Ward Jr. is a dynamic talent, the biggest reason for the hunch was because of Herman. His pedigree as a creative offensive mind had been proven at several stops before he arrived at Ohio State, but it's been the past few seasons where Herman not only helped turn QB catastrophe into wizardry -- and a national title -- but also got a Ph.D in program management under Urban Meyer.
That was evident in Herman's first big win as a head coach at Houston this weekend when the Cougars went to Louisville and beat Bobby Petrino's team. The Cougars went 11-22 on third downs and ran off 92 plays. Better still, UH again has an opportunistic defense, which forced four turnovers and kept the Cards from having a play of 30 yards or longer.
Here's what I think mattered even more: a team with a rookie head coach and new staff won on the road despite big struggles in the red zone and having an 18-play drive that yielded no points. That's some soul-crushing stuff and usually leads to frustration and defeat, especially on the road and especially as an underdog. Herman's team, though, never buckled.
"It sounds cliche or like coach-speak, but we've been training for this moment for nine months, training them how to respond to adversity," Herman told FOX Sports late Saturday night.
Louisville isn't a Top 25 team, but it is an established program that has finished in the Top 25 the past three seasons. "We did not pass the eye test against them," Herman said. "They were bigger and faster than us."
This win for Herman and UH isn't just a statement to the rest of college football and to recruits (who already have been buying in), but also to his own players.
"We've got a lot of buy-in from some key players, but there are some fringe guys that are kinda dabbling their toes in," he said. "This gives a lot of credence and testimony to, 'Oh shoot, maybe this guy does know what he's doing in pushing us so hard and demanding so much of us.'"
Herman got a close-up look at a master at handling a college football program. He says Meyer has talked about how you really need 40 to 50 guys who are "all-in" to be very successful. Herman estimated that before the Louisville trip, maybe his team had 25 to 30 guys he would deem as all-in. But he hopes now they'll have about 15 to 20 more because those other guys will be critical in a long college season in which players get injured and worn down.
In many ways, it's pivotal for football coaches to manage the psyche of a team as if it's a living, breathing thing. Herman said he agrees with that theory, echoing something he said he heard a coach say recently: "'I don't coach football. I coach people.' That's my biggest job, managing the psyche of our team on a day-to-day basis. We can't afford any days off or any periods of practice off. We've got to make sure our guys are in a peak mental place."
Again this year, we are doing the FOX Four with all of our college football commentators. Here's my latest Top 10:
1. Ohio State: Thumping a good Virginia Tech team on the road was very impressive, and the Buckeyes also get a nice little boost with Michigan State defeating Oregon to prop up the Big Ten.
2. Michigan State: The Spartans' win against Oregon prompted the jump up to the No. 2 spot. MSU's D held the explosive Ducks' ground game to 2.9 yards a carry. That's strong. Connor Cook was solid, and Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton have emerged to go along with a very good O-line.
3. Alabama: A dominant win over Wisconsin is a nice start, and the Tide did what they were supposed to do against Middle Tennessee. The QB play of Jake Coker and Cooper Bateman (2 INTs) needs to get a lot sharper, though.
4. Oklahoma: Baker Mayfield and Sterling Shepard were terrific in the fourth quarter, and new OC Lincoln Riley was very creative in helping rally OU to beat Tennessee in OT on the road. That is a very good win and vaults the Sooners over both TCU and Baylor, who have yet to face as much of a challenge.
5. Texas A&M: A much-improved D, along with a breakout star in Christian Kirk, enabled A&M to blast ASU in the opener, and the Aggies then rolled over Ball State from the MAC. It's a strong start for Kevin Sumlin's team.
6. UCLA: The Bruins had no trouble with a Virginia team that gave Notre Dame fits. On Saturday night, Paul Perkins took over and ran all over undermanned UNLV on the road.
7. LSU: Young QB Brandon Harris was solid if not spectacular starting on the road in a hostile place (at Mississippi State), and Leonard Fournette was superb.
8. TCU: The Horned Frogs ran over FCS opponent Stephen F. Austin after a nice road win at Minnesota.
9. Notre Dame: A last-second long TD grab by Will Fuller saved Notre Dame from losing at UVA, but the victory came with a hefty price: QB Malik Zaire is done for the year with a fractured ankle.
10. USC: Cody Kessler's been very sharp, showing off all the Trojans' weapons as they've crushed two non Power-5 teams. Neither is an FCS program. Then again, Idaho probably should be at this point, given what a mess Paul Petrino's program is. I almost had Ole Miss in this spot. Hugh Freeze's team is averaging 75 ppg. The Rebels haven't played anyone yet, but we'll find out a lot more about Chad Kelly and company this week at 'Bama.
WOES TO GO AROUND
--The Auburn O has been the biggest dud so far in 2015. The Tigers are No. 77 in the country in yards per play (5.52), and this is after facing an 0-2 Louisville team and FCS foe Jacksonville State. QB Jeremy Johnson has five INTs in just 53 passes. That's one more pick than Marcus Mariota had in 15 games last season. Johnson and the Tigers better get things sorted out fast. They go to LSU next week.
--I wasn't high on South Carolina coming into the season, and after two weeks, things look pretty dismal. We'll see whether Steve Spurrier can get this thing back on track. Not only did the Gamecocks lose to Kentucky at home, but his two best offensive weapons also questioned the play-calling, according to this Heath Cline story:
Running back Brandon Wilds had 106 yards on 16 carries, but did not get a carry on two of the three red zone trips that resulted in field goals. After the game, Wilds questioned the play calling, responding, "No, not at all," when asked whether he'd gotten enough carries. "We need to run the ball more," Wilds said.
Wilds wasn't the only one who felt that way, with wide receiver Pharoh Cooper saying "we probably should have run the ball" when asked about the red zone struggles.
--Am hearing that Illinois, which has been dealing with all sorts of problems within its athletic department these days, has only one full-time trainer for football right now and that the Illini are pulling from other sports for games. Most big programs usually have at least three full-time football trainers.
--Note to college coaches: It's never a good idea to take shots at someone else's schedule. You can argue whether it's bad form or not -- or even has any sway on playoff power brokers -- but it just seems to invite bad karma. And sure enough that happened, as Toledo went into Arkansas and pulled off a win, a few days after Hogs coach Bret Bielema took a dig at Ohio State's schedule.
"Ohio State's ranked No. 1, and they have one game remaining on their schedule that has anybody ranked right now," Bielema said earlier this week before the Rockets beat the Hogs. "We're going to play eight straight opponents that are ranked."
POWER 5 SUCCESS
--Best winning percentage by Power 5 conferences so far against Group of 5 schools: ACC/ND: 89 percent; Big 12: 88 percent; SEC: 85 percent; Pac-12: 82 percent; and Big Ten: 67 percent.
RUTGERS' BRIGHT SPOT
--Rutgers is an absolute mess, but the Scarlet Knights have a stud in WR Janarion Grant, who returned a punt and kick for a TD in RU's home loss to Washington State en route to a school-record 339 all-purpose yards.
K-STATE OF MIND
--As many of you know, I got a chance to work as a sideline reporter for FS1 over the weekend for the K-State-UTSA game. (I'll do Tulsa-OU this week.) I had a blast. I love that my first game doing it was a Bill Snyder game, and he gave me a gem of a quote walking off the field in the first half. His team had an uncharacteristic number of penalties in its opener and had four more in the first half. "How frustrated are you with your team's penalties after last week?" I asked Snyder.
"Frustrated? Well," he paused for a moment. "On a scale of 1-10, I'm at a 20."
If you want to hear more about what that experience was like, check out the next Audible podcast.
--Speaking of K-State, the least surprising development of NFL Week 1 to me (or from the preseason) is that former Wildcats star Tyler Lockett is continuing to rip off long TD plays. The guy is basically doing to NFL players what he did to Big 12 dudes the past few years.
STATS OF THE DAY
--Take One: After OU's win at Tennessee on Saturday night, Bob Stoops is now 25-7 against current members of the SEC. A lot of that damage is against Texas A&M and Mizzou from their days in the Big 12, but considering that the Tigers have proved to be an SEC East heavyweight the past couple of years and A&M has more than held its own in the West, this Stoops stat is very impressive. Might as well call him Big League Bob.
--Take Two: The Petrino brothers are 0-4 and their teams are allowing 42 ppg. And, even though both brothers are known as offensive guys, their teams have combined for just two plays of 30 yards or longer.
--Take Three: Four QBs are completing more than 80 percent on third downs. Three are current or former Florida Gators QBs. N.C. State's Jacoby Brissett is first at 90 percent. Current UF QB Will Grier is second at 89 percent, while Louisiana Tech's Jeff Driskel is fourth at 83 percent. The one non-Gator is Charlotte's Matt Johnson, who is at 87 percent.