2016 Season Rewind
After eight days of decompression and reflection since Oklahoma blew out the Auburn Tigers in the Bayou, I’ve finally wrapped my mind around just who the 2016 Oklahoma Sooners were. Expectations, distress, resiliency, and determination define one of the more memorable seasons in the Bob Stoops’ era.
Coming off of their first College Football Playoff berth in 2015, expectations were high leading into the 2016 season. The Sooners were ranked 3rd in the pre-season polls and heading back to the CFP was thought to be more of a reality than a conversation– The Sooners were back to being contenders with their fellow blue bloods.
All Oklahoma had to do was handle one of the two early non-conference games and then run the Big 12 before meeting Clemson or Alabama in Phoenix for the National Semifinal. The story was already written: Bob, Baker, and the boys were to bring Oklahoma back into a national power.
Not only were the expectations for the team high, so were the individuals. Baker Mayfield headlined a plethora of awards lists, including the Heisman, Maxwell, O’Brien, and Burlsworth. Samaje Perine was set to break the all-time rushing record at Oklahoma. Jordan Thomas was talked about for the Thorpe Award, and Bob Stoops was in the conversation for Coach of the Year.
Yeah, the regular expectations were back in Norman, Oklahoma.
The opening drive of the 2016 season against Houston was one that, at that time, set the tone for the entire season. Baker and the offense pounded Houston into the ground as Joe Mixon thundered into the endzone from 32 yards out.
From that moment, Oklahoma slowly began to fall back into mediocrity and showing shades of the 2014 season. Tom Herman and his Houston Cougars team dominated the #3 Sooners in their season opener. A third down conversion barrage, lack of a running game, and a kick-six for the ages haunted Bob and company during week one. A loss that moved the margin of error from inessential to tenuous. Luckily, a mulligan awaited the Sooners two weeks later.
To put it nicely, the atmosphere for the Ohio State game was berserk. Take a look for yourself in case you forgot:
I know I've posted it once, but this video is incredible. That atmosphere was ELECTRIC. Fan base brought it. pic.twitter.com/cTkZ6sFXZD
— Kegan Reneau (@KeganOUUpdated) September 20, 2016
However, the Buckeyes ran Boomer and Sooner back into their barns in a not-so-kind way. It was an ass-kicking. No way else to put it. Oklahoma was outclassed and run off their own field by a future College Football Playoff semifinalist. Injuries began to plague the team, especially on the defensive side of the ball, as it would be the last game for Matt Dimon and Tay Evans, both which were starters. An absolute nightmare start for the 2016 Sooners and one that sparked conversations of Bob Stoops potentially seeing his last day in Norman if the trend continued into the Big 12 play.
Panic had set in.
Fast forward to Oklahoma’s matchup with TCU, the Sooners were down 21-7 at the end of the first quarter in Fort Worth. This was the pivotal moment for the season. Would the Sooners throw in the towel or would they finally respond to adversity?
They chose the latter. From that moment on, the Sooners would put up 45 points while holding the Horned Frogs to 25 through the next 3 quarters. Momentum swung back and forth but it was the Sooners who found a way to win on the road. Now 2-2. Okay.
The Red River Rivalry (Showdown? who cares). One that is always wacky and unexpected. The Sooners are now without starters Charles Walker, Matt Dimon, Cody Ford, and Tay Evans. They would soon lose cornerback, Michiah Quick, early on in this game. It was a low-scoring first half that turned into fireworks in the second half. Samaje Perine re-emerged as a dominate, physical back, and Dede Westbrook would make his first case for being named the best wide receiver in college football. The Sooners were back above .500 at 3-2.
Kansas State fell next as Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine put their first complete rushing game of the season together. Mayfield and Westbrook continued their air attack on an 88 yard touchdown pass; these type of big plays would soon become common in Lincoln Riley’s offense. The Sooners moved to 4-2 in dominating fashion.
The last of the opening four game test the Big 12 conference slate pitted Baker Mayfield back in enemy territory without running back, Samaje Perine. Lubbock, Texas would become the setting for the single worst defensive performance in Oklahoma history. While Baker Mayfield and Joe Mixon dominated, the Oklahoma defense had no answer for Tech QB, Patrick Mahomes, who would set an NCAA record with 819 yards of offense. It was an utter breakdown, an embarrassment, and a very real threat to the future of defensive coordinator, Mike Stoops. However, the offensive firepower of Oklahoma prevailed again, and the Sooners would move to 5-2. Next up, a three-game stretch of Kansas, Iowa State, and Baylor.
Injuries, rumors, and other potential issues could have caused this team to crumble after a 1-2 start. It could have caused the team to deteriorate early in Big 12 play– but it didn’t. Now reinvigorated, the Sooners rolled Kansas at home and then grounded it out against the Cyclones on a week-night trip to Ames without their duo of NFL backs: Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. The Sooners handled Baylor in what many thought would be more of a matchup than what it turned out to be.
Grit. Resolve. Determination. That’s the only way to explain it.
The Sooners would head into their toughest stretch of their schedule beginning with a snow-plagued game in Morgantown. The elements played favor to the Mountaineers. The snow would make Oklahoma’s offense one-dimensional, and the Big 12’s best defense would thrive against them. However, that wasn’t the case. The offensive line showed their dominance through four quarters. Dede Westbrook cemented his legacy in Sooner lore with the stiff arm on a West Virginia linebacker before going 75 yards for a touchdown. Oklahoma defied the narrative. They were capable of playing physical and a gritty style of football while continuing to put up huge numbers on offense. West Virginia, with their the top-rated defense in the Big 12, fell to the Sooners, 56-28.
Two weeks later, The University of Oklahoma met Oklahoma State in Norman for the annual Bedlam matchup. The Cowboys came out throwing haymakers while putting together methodical drives and physically dominating Oklahoma on both sides of the ball. The Sooners, however, would respond. While Geno Lewis gave a star effort after taking over for the injured Dede Westbrook, it was Samaje Perine who stole the show. After marching down the field, the now all-time leading rusher in Oklahoma history would kneel the ball on the one rather than taking the easy touchdown. Either way, the clock would stop at zero. The Oklahoma Sooners earned their 10th Big 12 Championship on their home field.
Fast forward to January 2nd. Oklahoma was back in the Sugar Bowl, this time against the Auburn Tigers. Many considered the matchup to favor the bigger, more physical Tigers. There was no way a team from the Big 12 could push around a team from the SEC West. It couldn’t happen…or so they thought. Auburn put together one drive. Their power run game would chip away and eventually gash the Oklahoma defense at times. Little did anyone know, that would be it for the Tigers. Oklahoma took the punch, and like the TCU game, delivered one back– The Sooners dominated thereafter. Mike Stoops’ Defense lived in the Auburn backfield for the next 3 quarters and the Sooner linebackers/safeties crushed the big, physical running backs of Auburn. The offensive line stood up to the talented front 4 of the Tigers’ Defense and kept Baker Mayfield clean all evening. This game was supposed to be a test of the Sooners’ physicality, and it was. They passed. In fact, they dominated every facet of the game.
Determination. It truly is the only way to explain how this season went.
This season and this team showed why this program is heading in the right direction. They were given every reason to say, “eh, is it really worth it to keep battling?” Yet, they truly proved everyone wrong.
It wasn’t just Bob Stoops. It wasn’t just Baker Mayfield. It was everyone buying in to the notion that despite being knocked down, they could get back up. In essence, that is football. Things aren’t always going to go your way, when they don’t, how do you respond? When you’re at your lowest, do you throw in the towel or do you keep going? This team chose to change the narrative that so many people were giving them– That they weren’t ready to be contenders. No College Football Playoff opportunity? No problem. After nearly falling out of the Top-25, The Sooners did what was necessary to make the most out of their season, finishing back in the Top 5.
This sets up the first National Championship or bust scenario since 2011. A season that started with Oklahoma being #1 in the preseason, even getting publicity with ESPN covering their fall camp practices. The Sooners will not be #1 heading into the 2017 season, but nothing less than finishing there will suffice for a program, alumni group, and fan base hungry for their 8th National Championship.