NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — It’s still September and Oklahoma already is out of the Top 25 and the national championship race. That is unfamiliar and surprising territory for the Sooners, especially considering they entered the season on the short list of potential College Football Playoff teams.
The Sooners reassessed their program and its goals during a bye week that followed a 45-24 thumping by Ohio State that dropped them to 1-2. Now Oklahoma’s primary objective is to win the Big 12 Conference, and they’ll begin that quest on Saturday as an underdog at No. 21 TCU (3-1, 1-0 Big 12).
Oklahoma players and coaches maintained Monday that winning the conference title is always important – “kind of your first goal,” as sophomore receiver Mark Andrews put it.
“I don’t think it’s hard coming off not being in the talk for the national title in order to be excited for the Big 12, just because it’s such a big thing here,” Andrews said. “We pride ourselves on that. It’s important to us. I think that everyone is excited about it still and ready for it even though we had a couple losses in the beginning of the season.”
Coach Bob Stoops certainly has placed an emphasis on the Big 12 during his 18 seasons at Oklahoma, guiding the Sooners to nine conference titles – the most of any team either presently or formerly in the league. He said it’s important for his players to remain motivated.
“We’ve won a lot of championships around here with a couple losses,” he said, emphasizing the Sooners have to “keep fighting, keep improving. The better teams improve through the year, and that’s what we have to do. We have to keep improving this week to next week.”
The question surrounding the program is if this year’s Sooners will follow the script of 2014 or 2015. In 2014, Oklahoma lost to TCU after a 4-0 start and stumbled to an 8-5 finish that included a 40-6 loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl. But last year, after the Sooners’ hopes seemed dashed by a 24-17 loss to Texas in early October, they rallied for seven straight wins to earn a playoff spot.
How Oklahoma responds the next two weeks – first against TCU, then against archrival Texas on Oct. 8 – should provide insight into which direction the Sooners are headed after the losses to Ohio State and Houston.
“Sometimes you get some tough breaks, you don’t execute and play as well as you thought you would,” Stoops said. “That doesn’t mean the culture’s broken. That was the theme two years ago. Then we go to the playoffs and win a Big 12 championship (in 2015), and it isn’t again. It never was.”
Andrews said the lessons learned by the Sooners the past two years should serve them well in the coming weeks.
“I think we’ve been there before,” Andrews said. “I think that’s something that we kind of thrive on, being counted out and having all these people say that you can’t do this and you can’t do that. I think this team is going to respond well and block out that noise and not pay any attention to it.”
Saturday’s game in Fort Worth, Texas, will be only the 10th time under Stoops that Oklahoma will be unranked while facing a Top 25 foe. The Sooners are 9-4 in those games, including a 4-1 mark in the last five such games. The last time it happened during the regular season was Nov. 28, 2009, and the Sooners routed No. 11 Oklahoma State 27-0 in that game.
“I thought we got markedly better last year from the first five games to the end of the year,” Stoops said. “I think because we’ve kept a positive attitude of pushing ourselves and, when I say a positive attitude, it means maintain confidence and challenge each other on the field to improve on the practice field and bring it to the games.”