NORMAN — A little after noon on Nov. 16, the Sooners were tied at home with Iowa State at halftime and lucky to be there.
Optimism waned. Coaching jobs seemed in peril. OU looked headed for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, where it mercifully could play a Big Ten team, and that seemed just fine with the Sooner brass.
Fast forward 40 days. The Sooners arrive in New Orleans on Friday to play mighty Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. They won at Kansas State as an underdog with Trevor Knight quarterbacking and won at OSU as a heavy underdog with Blake Bell quarterbacking. They've reminded America that reports of OU's gridiron demise have been greatly exaggerated.
There's a whole new vibe around Oklahoma football.
“I think you kind of get this feeling, people are kind of down on us,” said OU guard Bronson Irwin. “Obviously, that's not a desirable feeling for us. Want to go out and prove people wrong. I think we've done a pretty good job of that the last few weeks, getting some wins in games we weren't favored in. Now we've got another we're not favored in. Going to try to do the same thing.”
It's a major attitude adjustment, from hoping to draw Iowa in Tempe to excited to play Alabama in the Big Easy. But that's exactly the trail the Sooners have trod. Major attitude adjustment.
“Going to the BCS, it's awesome,” said center Gabe Ikard. “There's just a different energy about the game … being able to play the best team in college football, that's a great opportunity for myself and the rest of the guys on the squad. It's big for the program, big for the players who have pro aspirations, big for recruiting. Big all the way around. It's a huge opportunity.”
Amazing, the transformation. Seems like 15 minutes ago, Sooner Nation seemed destitute. No offensive identity, no hope in Bedlam, no belief that Bob Stoops could get his program back on the high side.
Now there's confidence that Knight can be a winning quarterback, Pistol Pete's head sits on the trophy room wall and 2014 offers excitement that it, with a bunch of veterans returning, could be a championship year.
“First of all, when you win, there's always better spirits,” said offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, whose stock has shot up in recent weeks. “There's no doubt about that. But at the same time, our consistency as a program during Coach Stoops' tenure, and during the course of a season, being able to bounce back from the ups and downs, it really comes from him. He is consistent. We're consistent in our approach. The preparation, the process you have to go through to give yourself a chance to win.”
True enough. Stoops has proved that he knows how to cajole his teams to improvement during the season. 2005, 2006, 2010. Those teams shook off midseason malady and got much better by season's end. Now in 2013, he's done it again.
Stoops wants no part of such talk, of course. No talk of a different vibe or renewed optimism.
“We didn't change,” Stoops said. “We didn't go do something different. It's not about riding the wave. We don't go down in here, down in here. We do the same. It's how we continually work our program.
“Guys in the locker room, coaches, we never lost faith. We felt like we could finish the year strong.”
Sure, Stoops said, everyone feels better, “but in the end, does it change how we operate and what we do? No.”
Of course, the Sugar Bowl could submarine the newfound giddiness. If Alabama wins 42-3, then reality sinks in fast. But otherwise, this is a no-lose bowl for the Sooners. Which is rare for them. Hard to remember OU ever walking Moral Victory Boulevard (Texas 2009?), but that's exactly what the Sooners would achieve, even in defeat, if they play Bama tough.
“We've kind of kept the same attitude all year long,” Knight said. “We've battled injuries, we've battled adversity. But we've always found people to step up and make plays and continue on. People got down on us throughout the year, but now here we are, 10-win team, going into the Sugar Bowl against a great Alabama team.”
Everything looks different. Everything looks better. Winning is the great elixir. There are two primary ways to change the vibe around a program. One is to fire coaches. This way is much better.
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.