NORMAN — Alabama coach Nick Saban caught some of Oklahoma's upset win Saturday at Oklahoma State and came away impressed with how Bob Stoops' squad fought through adversity.
“They've got a great competitive character about them,” Saban said Sunday, only a short time after the announcement that his team would meet OU in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.
“I think the character of their team was pretty much demonstrated in how they won the last game in some very difficult circumstances.”
The last month for Oklahoma has been all about fighting back in difficult circumstances. The Sooners never quite found a true offensive identity or consistency at quarterback. A 41-12, nationally televised shellacking at Baylor in early November raised questions about the state of Stoops' program and whether it might ever reclaim its place nationally among college football's elite powers.
After a three-game winning streak, though, Stoops' Sooners are all of a sudden 10-2, ranked No. 11 in the BCS Standings and staring down a Sugar Bowl matchup with Alabama, a program that has represented the absolute gold standard of major college football the past four years.
Oklahoma's selection to one of the game's premier postseason contests not only signals that perhaps concerns about the program's stability were a tad impulsive, but it also exemplifies the tremendous job Stoops and his staff did throughout a season filled with adversity and uncertainty.
The Sooners lost senior captains Corey Nelson and Trey Millard to career-ending injuries; their best defensive lineman, Jordan Phillips, to a season-ending back issue; and one of their best offensive weapons with running back Damien Williams' dismissal.
OU was forced to play without the entire left side of its offensive line in Saturday's Bedlam win, as guard Adam Shead and tackle Tyrus Thompson are both struggling with injuries. Senior cornerback Aaron Colvin has played through a painful shoulder injury the past few games.
Still, this coaching staff has plugged young, inexperienced replacements in for the injured players and seen impressive development from many of them, like true freshman linebackers Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans, and freshman defensive tackle Jordan Wade.
“Everybody just kept grinding, kept fighting, kept believing,” Stoops said. “We've had a great attitude and a tough, hardworking group of players all along.
“I am proud of our assistant coaches, the way they've continued to put pieces together when we have lost guys … no one ever flinched.”
With the Bedlam win and Sugar Bowl berth, Stoops has now won at least 10 games in 12 of his seasons as Oklahoma's head coach. He's led the Sooners to nine BCS bowl appearances.
And on Jan. 2 in New Orleans, Oklahoma has an opportunity to send a clear message that it is still a force to be reckoned with.
“When you get to go to a BCS bowl game, there's only 10 teams that do that,” Saban said. “It's a great tribute to the coaching staff and players and the perseverance they've shown to overcome a lot of adversity this year.”