Where Does Oklahoma Go From Here?
by Trevor Whenham - 9/11/2009
What's the worst thing that could possibly have happened to the Oklahoma Sooners? Not much question that that would be losing Sam Bradford for an extended time to injury. What's the second worst thing? Perhaps losing tight end Jermaine Gresham, a potential All-American who was likely to be the pass-heavy team's likely leading passer. How about the third worst thing? Losing the opener to upstart BYU to drop in the rankings and lose momentum before a tough Big 12 season even starts. What would happen when all three of those things happen at the same time? Hard to know for sure, but we're about to find out.
Let's look at each situation in turn. First, Sam Bradford. As the result of a clean tackle at the end of the first half against BYU, Bradford has a moderately serious sprain of his throwing shoulder that could keep him out for at least two weeks, and perhaps four or more. They won't know for sure how long he will be out until he starts throwing again and they can see how he has responded to treatment. It goes without saying that Bradford - the defending Heisman Trophy winner - is a crucial piece of his team.
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That would go without saying at the best of times, but especially for this team that has lost so many key pieces of their offense. The obvious parallel is with Tom Brady last year. Brady was as important to his team as Bradford is here. As it turned out the team was reasonably successful without him, but they could just as easily have been a disaster if Matt Cassel hadn't responded as well as he did.
Next, Jermaine Gresham. The news here couldn't be worse. Gresham went down with a knee injury before the season started. It was initially hoped that arthroscopic surgery would provide a quick fix and he could return to action soon. The news from that surgery wasn't good, though. The cartilage in his knee needed to be stitched together, and that will take about five months to recover. That obviously rules out this season. This would be bad any time, but especially bad with a new quarterback about to take over. The tight end is heavily used in the Oklahoma offense, and Gresham was an easy and trustworthy target regardless of the coverage he faced. Without that, the job of replacing Bradford is much more difficult.
Now for the loss. It's important to recognize that BYU is a very good team - especially defensively - and there is no shame in losing to them. There is also no certainty that Oklahoma would have beaten them if Bradford hadn't been hurt - Bradford hadn't been particularly effective against the tough Cougars' defense before going down.
All that being said, this loss would be hard to come back from even in the best of circumstances. The team doesn't have a meaningful game again for a couple weeks, so the taste of this loss will linger in the mouth of voters for a long time. That means that the team will be punished, and they will have to work harder to climb back from it. It's hard to believe that the team had legitimate national championship aspirations before the loss because of the offensive turnover, but any aspirations they have had have taken a massive step backwards.
They would have to win and win convincingly in every game going forward in order to stand a chance, and they would need BYU to keep winning as well. The most optimistic possible view is that they have lost their safety cushion. The truth is probably less optimistic than that.
This is not the first time that Bob Stoops has been through a situation like this, though it is the most extreme example. Before the 2006 season Rhett Bomar was kicked off the team and Paul Thompson had to start. That team went 10-2 in the regular season and then beat Nebraska to win the Big 12 before famously losing to Boise State in one of the most entertaining bowl games ever played. As an added level of frustration, Adrian Peterson broke his collarbone and missed the last half of the season. Despite all that, the team was a pleasantly profitable 9-4-1 against the spread. The big difference between that season and this one, though, is that Thompson was a senior who had played quite a bit in relief, while new QB Landry Jones is a redshirt freshman who made his career debut in the second half against BYU. He didn't look great there, but few would against that defense.
The first game Oklahoma will play with Jones at the helm will be a gift for him but a challenge for college football handicappers. Jones makes his starting debut against a totally outclassed Idaho State team in a game that will be easier for the Sooners than an intra-squad practice. That will give Jones time to get comfortable with the team and vice versa.
Unfortunately, it will show us almost nothing about what Jones is capable of, so we will still be forced to guess about what he will accomplish when he faces Tulsa the week after. For what it's worth, Jones was a highly-regarded high school prospect - the sixth rated QB in his class - with a strong arm and a penchant for big plays, so there is a good chance that the public will overcompenstae for the absence of Bradford. When Matt Cassel took over for the Patriots the line dropped by about 10 points and he covered easily. It's predicted that the Tulsa line will drop by almost as much.
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