NORMAN – Eight Big 12 losses the last three seasons. Multiple suspensions and dismissals. Even the loss of Owen Field invincibility. A shaky performance in the only real game of 2012 thus far.
These are uneasy times in Sooner football.
Not necessarily nationally, considering the Sooners are ranked fifth or sixth in the major polls.
Not necessarily regionally, considering the Sooners were picked to win the Big 12 and Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, who Saturday night brings his Wildcats to town for a showdown special, says he can't think of a negative thing to say about Bobby Stoops' squad.
But in Soonerville, in every hill and holler and homestead where they hold Oklahoma football dear, there's a general restlessness. Not the hunger to end the national championship drought. A fear. A fear that the program has slipped.
Even Stoops' strongest supporters privately wonder if their coach needs to make even bigger changes than last off-season, when he took the bold and novel steps of firing an assistant (Willie Martinez) and demoting another (Brent Venables).
All of which makes OU-Kansas State a huge game for Sooner psyches. Beat the 15th-ranked Wildcats, and all seems better. Lose, and suddenly it's fair to say that Sooner football is in a multi-year slump.
This much we know for sure. The Sooner talent base isn't what it was a few years ago.
“It's Oklahoma, so you're going to have great players, regardless,” said fifth-year defensive end R.J. Washington. But then Washington recited some of his teammates from 2008 and 2009.
Sam Bradford. Jermaine Gresham. Trent Williams. G.K. McCoy. Jeremy Beal. Auston English.
“Guy after guy after guy,” Washington said. “Their generation might have been a little more doggish, if that makes sense. They were like, I don't care … this is how I'm going to play. Let's go get it. We still have that mentality, but it's tweaked different.”
Clearly, OU is not as strong in the lines as it was in recent yesteryear. The smaller guys, I guess we can keep it open for discussion.
Of course, Stoops won the 2000 national championship with a team that wasn't talent-rich. So blue-chip stock and star ratings aren't the only variable.
“Lot of different forms of talent,” said OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, who quarterbacked that 2000 team. “Lot of intangible characteristics and traits ultimately determine who and what you can be as a team.”
Josh Almighty said the 2000 team came to work every day focused and accountable to each other. “That's why that team went on and did some of the things it did. The special teams around here have handled themselves in that way.”
So how have the present Sooners acquitted themselves?
“We're trying to get these young guys to buy in and do a lot of those things,” Heupel said. “It's a daily process. That's what happens when you get the opportunity to deal with 18- to 22-year-olds.”
Maybe these Sooners have straightened out, maybe not. But the comings and goings of players OU was counting on – Stacy McGee, Jaz Reynolds, Casey Walker – shows that it's a work in progress.
Diminish the talent pool, even if only slightly, and diminish the culture of commitment, even if only slightly, and you've got a diminished football program, even if only slightly.
Sometimes the difference between winning and losing is slight.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.