NORMAN — When the Cotton Bowl kicks off at 7 p.m. Jan. 4, this Oklahoma team becomes college football's first since Florida in 1993 to play against each of the season's top-three Heisman Trophy finalists.
Third-place finisher and Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein conquered Oklahoma on Sept. 22 in Norman. A little over a month later, Heisman runner-up Manti Te'o led Notre Dame's suffocating defense onto Owen Field, where he, too, defeated the Sooners.
Oklahoma has four more weeks to prepare for Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M's freshman quarterback and recently crowned Heisman Trophy winner; Manziel's electric skill-set and versatility — combined with the Sooner defense's struggles against running quarterbacks — make him Oklahoma's greatest challenge from an individual this season.
“The quarterback draw has been problematic for us,” OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said days before the Sooners' regular-season finale at TCU.
Those problems began taking shape Nov. 10, when Oklahoma beat Baylor but allowed its quarterback, Nick Florence, to uncharacteristically rush for 83 yards and a touchdown.
West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith only attempted four rushes — receiver-turned-superstar running back Tavon Austin did most of the Mountaineers' ground work — but two fourth-quarter scampers from Smith went for 24 and 17 yards, respectively; OU escaped with a 50-49 win.
Perhaps most surprising, though, was Oklahoma State's Clint Chelf finding room for 63 rushing yards in OU's 51-48, overtime win Nov. 24.
The Sooners were better against the quarterback run against TCU, though; Horned Frogs freshman Trevone Boykin, a known rushing threat, was held in check for most of the Sooners' 24-17 win. He did manage to sneak away for one big, 36-yard gain, though.
“We're just working on us and tightening up the little things that have been a problem for us all year,” junior linebacker Tom Wort said before facing TCU. “The draw and the inside zone has not been good for us.”
Keeping Boykin from running wild was a nice start, but containing Manziel is an entirely different animal. He set the SEC's single-season record for total yards, rushing for 1,181 of them to go with his 19 rushing scores.
In his signature win of the season, Manziel made big plays with his arm and legs against Alabama's vaunted defense; he rushed for 92 yards and threw for 253 in A&M's 29-24 upset victory, which vaulted the freshman into serious Heisman contention.
Perhaps time will be Oklahoma's greatest ally in its Cotton Bowl preparations; Mike Stoops' defense struggled mightily through most of November, but did seem to improve against TCU.
With several weeks to strategize for Manziel and Texas A&M, a familiar opponent with a familiar head coach — former OU co-offensive coordinator Kevin Sumlin — Stoops is certain to have his defense prepared as possible for the Cotton Bowl.
Oklahoma lost to the second- and third-place Heisman finalists; it remains to be seen if — in the next few weeks — the Sooners can prepare, improve and adjust enough to have a chance against Manziel.