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OU finished off a memorable 2016 season on high note
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That may or may not help set the stage for 2017 campaign
Oklahoma ended the 2016 season with a bold-faced exclamation point. The Sooners absorbed an early Sugar Bowl punch and then took it to Auburn in every way, shape and form, the 35-19 final score leaving a crimson-and-cream fan base optimistic about 2017.
The next morning before he left New Orleans, however, Bob Stoops sounded a word of caution:
“I never think (a bowl win) matters for the next year,” he said. “Will it matter for recruiting and spring? Yeah. It gives you a lot of momentum finishing out recruiting here in the next month and a half. It’ll be positive, and then into spring. But the team next year will be totally different, with the guys we lose, that graduate and move on, new kids coming in.
“I think it gives you some positive momentum — but in the end, once you’re in August and into practice, it’s a whole new team.”
Samaje Perine’s record rushing total... Baker Mayfield’s record efficiency rating... Dede Westbrook’s Heisman ceremony season... Stoops’ 10th Big 12 Conference championship... OU’s fourth straight conquest over the mighty SEC...
It’s all worth celebrating a while longer.
Just be aware that eventually that bold-faced exclamation point will become a fuzzy question mark. Or question marks.
Stoops is right. His 19th OU team will be different than his 18th, or the 17 prior to that.
And so as strong as they looked in the Superdome, the Sooners should not automatically expect to pick up where they left off when they meet UTEP on Sept. 2, or at Ohio State Sept. 9. There are unsolved mysteries lingering.
Can Mayfield stay healthy for a third straight season?
It is the most underrated key to OU’s success over the past two years — Mayfield’s ability not just to keep plays alive, but to keep himself safe in doing so. He is the guy at the blackjack table who takes a hit on 18 and is dealt a 3.
The past two seasons, the Sooners could always ask Perine, Westbrook, Sterling Shepard or Joe Mixon to carry the offense on the chance something happened to their quarterback. Not next year.
It has never been more Mayfield’s team. He has to be upright to lead it.
Is there a “next in line” at wide receiver?
Once upon a time, Antwone Savage moved on and left OU pass-catching to Mark Clayton. Clayton left it to Malcolm Kelly, who left it to Ryan Broyles, who left it to Kenny Stills, who left it to Shepard, who left it to Westbrook, who will now leave it to…
Who exactly? Jeffery Mead? Mark Andrews? Mykel Jones? A player to be named later?
OU’s conveyor belt at wide receiver is one of the most dependable pieces of machinery in college football. You just have to hope the engine doesn’t blow between now and the 2017 opener.
How do the Sooners adjust to life without their two star backs?
A remarkable realization set in over the course of the Sugar Bowl — Perine was about to break the school’s most hallowed record, and he wasn’t even the best player in his own backfield. Mixon ran by, around and through Auburn defenders as the game wore on.
Mayfield won the game’s MVP award, but Mixon was the best player on the Superdome field.
Now, Lincoln Riley goes from calling plays for Perine and Mixon to doing so for Abdul Adams and Rodney Anderson. That’s no shot at Adams and Anderson, two fine players who should make their own way and find their own success.
It simply reflects this fact: Perine and Mixon represented college football’s most dynamic, most diverse one-two running back combination since USC’s Reggie Bush and LenDale White. It took the Trojans some time to adjust, sure as it will the Sooners.
Can Caleb Kelly become Jordan Evans?
Evans had a terrific Sugar Bowl to punctuate his stellar second half of the season. He was all over the field from the opening whistle of OU’s win over Kansas Oct. 29, making tackles, producing turnovers and helping change the perception of a defense so ridiculed at Texas Tech Oct. 22.
Kelly was even more active against Auburn in a breakout performance. He is even more highly touted as a freshman than Evans, pushing his college ceiling even higher. Stoops used the word “monster” to describe the young linebacker’s potential.
The sooner Kelly reaches that potential, the tougher his defense, and his team, will be.
Does the Big 12 seize on its own bowl momentum?
Remember Stoops’ lesson — what happens at the beginning of one season has little to do with the end of the last one. It is nonetheless worth pointing out that the Big 12 posted a 4-2 bowl record this year, its first winning ledger since 2011.
It is also worth noting that OU will be the Big 12’s leading playoff contender in 2017, at least out of the chute. And that the four playoff teams are determined not by play-in tournament or computer formula but by judgments made by living, breathing committee members.
The Sooners need a lift from their beleaguered league. And while how they, and their Big 12 peers, do next September will mean more than how they did the previous December and January, they have given themselves a running start heading into those non-conference games in nine months.
(Editor's Note: This story appears in the 2017 Bowl Review issue of Sooner Spectator. To read more or subscribe.. call 405-364-4515)