OU senior receiver Jalen Saunders played his first two seasons at Fresno State, which, until recently, was in line for a possible at-large BCS bowl berth.
Instead, the Bulldogs lost a game late in the regular season, and that result — along with Northern Illinois' unexpected collapse in its conference championship game — opened the door for Oklahoma to receive its Sugar Bowl bid.
“A lot of people had doubts in us finishing out the year, and we went out and proved people wrong,” Saunders said. “We did an excellent job finishing the season strong.”
Saunders said that when he decided to leave Fresno, he expected to choose between Texas A&M and Washington before a call from OU assistant Jay Norvell.
“I had that feel to come here,” Saunders said. “It was the way it was set up. Everything that Coach (Bob) Stoops and Coach Norvell preached to me, everything they told me before I signed, it's been the exact same. I'm shocked, the way everything just laid out.”
In two seasons, Saunders has caught 118 passes for 1,483 yards and nine touchdowns, and has also returned three punts for scores.
TWO-THIRDS OF CALI TRIO WILL REUNITE
When running back Brennan Clay, receiver Kenny Stills and defensive back Tony Jefferson all signed with Oklahoma in its 2010 recruiting class, the three Californians dubbed themselves the “Cali Trio.”
Stills and Jefferson each left school a year early to pursue NFL careers, while Clay stayed for his senior season, during which he's been one of the Sooners' best offensive weapons.
Stills was drafted by the New Orleans Saints and has started 10 games this year, catching 31 passes for 565 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie.
Jefferson went undrafted, but landed with the Arizona Cardinals as a free agent, beat the odds and secured a roster spot. He's appeared in all 15 of the Cardinals' games this season with two starts.
The Sooners will play Alabama on Jan. 2 in Stills' new home stadium, the Superdome.
“We'll meet up a few times,” Clay said. “I miss my brother and he's doing well up there.”
Asked what Jefferson will be doing, Clay quipped, “He's sitting down back in Arizona, twiddling his thumbs probably. But we talk periodically throughout the week, so we're all in touch.”
SOONERS MUST CONTAIN BAMA'S HOWARD
Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops is fully aware of the important role freshman tight end O.J. Howard plays in Alabama's offense.
“Their tight ends are a big part of their offense, and certainly that has given us problems at times this year,” Stoops said.
Howard, the top-ranked tight end prospect in the recruiting class of 2013, has caught 14 passes this season for 269 yards and two touchdowns.
He only catches a pass or two a game, but those plays are generally big. His only catch in the Crimson Tide's win over LSU was a 52-yard touchdown grab early in the second quarter.
“We're gonna have to spend a great deal of time making sure that we fit the run game and still be able to cover their receivers and tight ends because they're a big part of what they do,” Stoops said.
BARNETT LEARNING TO PUNT IN DIFFERENT CONDITIONS
Oklahoma junior punter Jed Barnett is from California, so the conditions he's been forced to perform in of late are foreign to him.
The Sooners' last two regular-season games — wins at Kansas State and Oklahoma State — were played in freezing cold.
“This is the coldest I've ever played in,” Barnett said after the Bedlam victory. “Kansas State was pretty bad two weeks ago, but this was probably officially the coldest game I've played in. I'm just glad it's over. I'm glad I'm standing somewhere warm now.”
Barnett said the Oklahoma wind was probably the most frustrating thing he had to adapt to after arriving in Norman, but that it's ultimately been good for him.
“It's definitely made me a better punter,” Barnett said. “I'm not as nervous when I go into a windy game because you really kick in it all year round. That's helped me a lot. It's not the ideal weather conditions, but like I said, all around, it's made me a better punter.
“It's added different things to my arsenal. It allows you to help your team out just a little bit more in conditions that once were foreign to you.”
Barnett started his college career as a walk-on at California, but left and took the junior-college route before ultimately arriving at OU last January.
For the season, Barnett is averaging 41.6 yards per punt, with nine kicks going for more than 50 yards. He twice pinned Oklahoma State at its own 1-yard line in that game.
Oklahoma senior safety Gabe Lynn, on what he'd say if anyone asked if he's afraid of Alabama:
“I ain't even going to say anything. That's just foolish. Can't give that no attention.”