NORMAN — With a weekend to digest Oklahoma’s disastrous season opener, listening to Bob Stoops’ postgame quotes and watching his coaches show and asking questions at Monday’s press conference, the biggest question after Houston’s 33-23 victory remains largely unanswered.
How, exactly, did this happen?
Oh sure, Stoops has chanted more about player execution, and he also said the coaches need to be better, too. So credit him for that.
Major deficiencies in pass coverage were troubling, and probably will be for the next four months. There were a variety of problems in OU’s own passing game, from inexperienced receivers not getting open to — and Stoops has mentioned this repeatedly — quarterback Baker Mayfield being “greedy” and impatient and playing outside the structure of the offense.
The offense’s inability to stay on the field and the defense’s inability to get off the field led to a significant disparity in total plays run and thus severely diminished the Sooners’ pronounced advantage in the run game. As such, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon combined for just 12 running attempts. Unthinkable.
That’s all problematic.
Most times in college football, a disappointment as profound as Saturday’s can be boiled down to one thing: recruiting.
But in this case, the OU-Houston head-to-head recruiting numbers tell the kind of tale that might sicken Oklahoma fans:
- Of the 49 Sooners that appear on the official participation chart, 18 were 4-star recruits, according to the Rivals.com database. Houston countered with only two 4-star recruits among its 42 participants.
- OU played just five players on Saturday who came to Norman with a 2-star rating. Houston, on the other hand, played 21 2-star recruits.
- The Sooners also had significantly more 3-star recruits — the successful evaluation of which is the true lifeblood of any successful program: 21 to 13.
- The average star rating of OU’s players on the field in NRG Stadium was 3.04. Houston’s average rating was 2.24.
That’s not all. Consider how the past five recruiting classes stack up:
- In 2012, OU’s class ranked No. 11 nationally. Houston’s was No. 63.
- In 2013, the Sooners were 15th. The Cougars were 48th.
- In 2014, Oklahoma’s freshman class was 15th. UH ended up 77th.
- In 2015, the Sooners finished 14th. Houston’s class ranked 91st.
- And in 2016, OU was 16th. Tom Herman’s first full class was 41st.
Players who are that much more talented than their opponent — or are supposed to be, anyway — can’t execute in a season opener?
The next logical question: have all those highly recruited players on Oklahoma’s roster been developed to their full potential?
Saturday’s result suggests a difficult answer: evidently not.
I asked Stoops if recruiting rankings matter.
“Sometimes rankings matter. That’s fair to say,” Stoops said. “But sometimes, too, they don’t. There’s a lot of really good players that I think go maybe undervalued or undetected.”
Keep in mind, this was no upset. This wasn’t Appalachian State blocking a Michigan kick in Ann Arbor, or Tavita Pritchard throwing a jump-ball fade in the Los Angeles Coliseum against mighty USC.
Houston was the better team on Saturday. By far. If not for a sloppy goal-line fumble by the Cougars, the Sooners would have found themselves down 40-17 in the closing minutes.
UH players were faster and more assertive, and they hit harder.
The only times that’s ever happened to a Bob Stoops-coached team in the first game of the year was in 2005 and 2009, when TCU and BYU punched the Sooners in the nose and OU never punched back. This Cougar bunch looks a lot like those Horned Frogs and Cougars (they both won 11 games; Houston could do better than that), but is more athletic.
And here’s the thing that has OU fans really squirming: this Sooner squad looks a lot like those ’05 and ’09 versions: shorter on talent than we all presumed (Stoops said as much on Monday), lacking in experience in too many key positions, and, well, a bit unwilling to punch back at this early stage of the season.
Those OU teams fortified themselves nicely by the end of the season, but it took a while as the losses piled up. With Ohio State coming to Norman in two weeks and trips to Fort Worth and Dallas suddenly looming like gallows, the Sooners need to fix things — and quickly.
That means the coaching staff is going to have to get more out of their players than they’ve been getting. They’re going to have to get those 4-star recruits to start playing like 4-star recruits.
They’re going to have to coach their players to execute. Players apparently can’t do it on their own.
Vegas oddsmakers favored OU to win by 12 points on Saturday. Instead, the Sooners lost by 10. Stoops has lost only 47 times in his illustrious 17-plus seasons at OU, but in 16 of those 47 losses (roughly one out of three), his team went off as a double-digit favorite.
Listen, it’s got to be a tough thing to evaluate high school talent and decide to choose a 3-star ballplayer over a 5-star diva.
But a fact of Stoops’ coaching tenure at OU is that he’s had a lot better fortune with the former than he has the latter.
“We’ve signed plenty of guys regardless of stars because we liked how they played and/or they fit what we were looking for,” Stoops said. “But also, you can get guys that work hard and got all kinds of (good) attitude that are 4- and 5-star guys, too. So in the end, we don’t get too concerned with the number of stars as we do with the way they play and how much it matters to ‘em. You’re always trying to evaluate that.
“But that’s young people everywhere. Some prosper and/or overachieve, and some underachieve. But that’s pretty much all of us.”