College football’s national championship is on the line tonight, and elite defense will be on display.
Georgia and Alabama, those rugged denizens of the Southeastern Conference, will show the rest of the world what big-time defense should look like in the college game.
Oklahoma fans can only dream.
For the ninth year in a row, Sooner Nation will have no rooting interest in the national championship game, largely because the Sooner football team showed no interest in playing national championship defense.
The 2017 season will go down, again, as one of the worst defenses in OU history.
This year’s team set school records for total points allowed, touchdowns allowed, first downs allowed, yards per play allowed and pass completions allowed. These Sooners also ranked second in school history in points per game allowed, total yards allowed, yards per game allowed, completion percentage allowed and pass efficiency rating allowed.
The 2017 team also ranked third, fourth or fifth in school history in numerous other categories, including both rushing touchdowns and passing touchdowns allowed.
If there was a school record for missed tackles, this team probably broke it.
Many of the records this year’s team didn’t break were set in 2012 — Mike Stoops’ first season back as defensive coordinator — or at some point in between.
Critics point to Stoops as the common thread running through the Sooners’ many recent defensive maladies.
Simply put, Stoops’ defenses have not evolved sufficiently since his return from Arizona. Four times in his six seasons, Stoops’ defense has broken the 1969 school record for yards allowed. Other records for defensive incompetence seem to fall almost every year.
Ultimately, OU’s poor defense falls at Stoops’ feet. He knows that. He’s 56 years old and has coached 29 seasons. He’s coached great defenses and lousy defenses.
Stoops defenders will say he’s never missed a tackle at OU, never blown a coverage. That’s true, of course. A team’s performance depends on the performance of the players. It’s the players who whiff on third-down sacks or can’t hang onto a running back’s legs.
But when substandard players cycle out and graduate and new players come in and the trend of awful defense continues over a six-year span, is it really the players?
At best, Stoops and his defensive staff must also bear the cross of having recruited those substandard players, or not developing them, or not putting them in position to be successful, or all of the above. Coaching matters.
Let’s be honest: some of OU’s new defensive records exist because offense is no longer played like it used to be, particularly in the Big 12 Conference.
But guess what? After 18 years trending in this direction, it’s clear that old-school offense — three yards and a cloud of dust — isn’t making a comeback to Big 12 country any time soon. Stoops has had six years in which to adapt to Big 12 football, and this year wasn’t any better than the previous five.
To be fair, Stoops has coordinated defenses that shared in winning four Big 12 championships.
But really, when the opposing offense is routinely shattering school records and your team is winning games 50-49, 51-48, 52-46, 45-40, 66-59 and 62-52, how much of that championship legacy does the OU defense really share?
One prevailing theory is that Big 12 defenses are under the gun because of the tempo and proficiency of Big 12 offenses, and that SEC defenses are protected more because their offenses value time-of-possession and have the football for fewer offensive plays and fewer possessions.
While few will argue that Big 12 offenses aren’t more sophisticated than their counterparts in the SEC, theories about tempo and number of possessions don’t hold much water.
Oklahoma had 180 total possessions in 14 games this season (including defensive scores and kneel-downs), an average of 12.85 per game.
Alabama had 160 possessions in 13 games, or 12.31 per game. Georgia had 179 possessions in 14 games, or 12.78 per game. The difference is minimal.
It wasn’t slow-paced, conservative offense that allowed Alabama and Georgia to play good defense this season. It was good defense.
This Oklahoma defense not only allowed opponents a lot of historically big numbers in 2017. It also recorded very few big plays of its own.
Since Bob Stoops took over in 1999 and offensive football in the Big 12 changed forever, this year’s Sooners were among the worst at producing tackles for loss, sacks, interceptions, passes defensed and fumbles recovered. The 2017 team ranked last during that period in interceptions and passes defensed, and only three OU squads since ’99 had fewer quarterback sacks and tackles for loss.
Add up those five big-play categories (159 total), and the 2017 Sooners rank next-to-last in program history since 1995 (Mike Stoops’ 2012 defense totaled just 138 such big plays).
Here’s another one: The Sooners have never gone more than two years in a row without recording a safety. They’ve now completed four consecutive seasons without one.
That may be as much a statistical oddity as anything — safeties are hard to come by and impossible to count on — but four years and counting without one may also reveal a decided lack of aggressiveness on Stoops’ part. The best time to get a safety obviously is when the opponent is pinned to its own goal line, yet Stoops has notoriously played it safe in those situations.
Should Mike Stoops be fired?
Decide for yourself.
But here are a few things to help you decide:
One, it won’t happen. Lincoln Riley did set the wheels in motion back in June when he hired Ruffin McNeal as defensive line coach, and OU now also can hire a 10th full-time assistant. But as a part of Bob Stoops’ inner circle, and owing a massive part of his career to Bob Stoops, Riley will never come out and say, “Mike Stoops has been fired as our defensive coordinator.” That’s not how Riley works. If anything, Riley (and Bob Stoops) will call in favors to other coaches around the country to get Mike hired somewhere else.
Two, if Mike Stoops does leave, he isn’t going anywhere until after National Signing Day. The Sooners have tons of positive momentum right now in recruiting — OU’s last six verbal commitments in the 2018 class have been defensive players, including three this weekend: four-star defensive end Nikolas Bonitto, four-star linebacker DaShaun White and five-star cornerback Brendan Radley-Hiles. Give Stoops his due credit for that.
And three, Riley offered Stoops a vote of confidence in his season wrap-up press conference just last week.
“Mike is a really good coach,” Riley said. “I have a lot of confidence in him, as I do our whole staff. To do what this staff and this program did this year with all the changes and all that, it’s unprecedented. People better remember that too.”
Should Mike Stoops be fired?
Maybe a better question is, why would Mike Stoops want to continue as a defensive coordinator in the Big 12? Taking a job in the Big Ten Conference or somewhere else, where five-star quarterbacks and offensive geniuses are harder to find, might be a smart career move.
Or, he could follow his big brother one more time, take stock in a great football career and simply retire. The Stoops family’s history of heart disease is extremely serious. Plus, he has a new wife, his kids are still young and he’s made a lot of money over the years.
What better time to slow down and enjoy life than right now?
Let others try to figure out how to play national championship defense.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.
Rankings of Oklahoma’s 2017 defense in school history
- Total points allowed (379): 1st
- Points per game (27.9): 2nd
- Total yards allowed (5,529): 2nd
- Yards per game (394.9): 2nd
- Yards per play (5.8): t-1st
- Touchdowns allowed (47): 1st
- First downs allowed (286): 1st
- Rushing yards allowed (2,191): 3rd
- Rushing yards per game (156.5): 10th
- Yards per rush (4.4): 4th
- Rushing TDs (24): 3rd
- Pass completions (367): 1st
- Pass attempts (447): 8th
- Passing TDs (23): t-3rd
- Completion percentage (59.7): 2nd
- Pass efficiency rating (135.86): 2nd
- Passing yards allowed (3,338): 4th
- Passing yards per game (238.4): 5th
- Tackles for loss (75): 4th since 1999
- Sacks (26): t-4th since 1999
- Interceptions (8): t-1st since 1999
- Passed broken up (40): t-1st since 1992
- Fumbles recovered (10): t-7th since 1999