It was just three months ago that the Oklahoma Sooners were predicted to do what they always seem to do under Bob Stoops: Contend for a Big 12 championship and maybe get another shot at a national title.
Was it really just August that Oklahoma was No. 3 in the preseason polls, behind Florida and Texas?
As the Sooners prepare to host Oklahoma State in the Bedlam rivalry this weekend, they aren't anywhere near the top 25, let alone Big 12 South contention. They've lost five regular season games for the first time in Stoops' tenure and need a victory just to have a winning season.
"For 11 seasons, in all but three of them, this is the third, we go in to the last game with an opportunity to play for a Big 12 Championship," said Stoops this week. "So this is different, but there have been a lot of unusual circumstances around this year. I'm not a knee-jerk guy and I'm not going to overreact to it. In the end, I understand what we have had to deal with the whole year. With the strength of schedule along with all the players that we have had to play without, to think it is just going to be the same is unrealistic."
Those injuries would have crippled most teams, which is why Stoops' stance is right. His team certainly could have responded better to the loss of key players --Oklahoma State could go 10-2 and end up in a BCS bowl despite not having suspended playmaker Dez Bryant for conference play and losing running back Kendall Hunter for some games too. But the Sooners program is one that can quickly return to its lofty standards. Learning from this season, but not dwelling on it too much, might be a good start. A win over the Cowboys on Saturday would certainly help.
Things started all wrong for the Sooners in Arlington, of all places. Oklahoma rolled in with a team that didn't look vastly different to the one that lost to Florida in the BCS championship game after the 2008 season. Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Sam Bradford returned, giving up a chance to be a first-round NFL draft pick. So did Bradford's favorite target, All-America tight end Jermaine Gresham.
An early-season loss in nonconference play is survivable. Many years, a Big 12 or SEC team with one loss can still play for a national title.
Oklahoma, though, never seemed to recover from the unexpected absence of Bradford and Gresham. They lost a one-point game in Miami, but were still the only two-loss team in the top 25 at that point. Bradford came back and led his team to a win against Baylor and gave fans hope that the Sooners could take down the Longhorns in the Red River Rivalry and still win the conference.
But Bradford's 2009 season ended as his shoulder hit the turf on a first-quarter sack at the Cotton Bowl (Dallas-Fort Worth sure wasn't kind to Bradford this season). Oklahoma lost the game 16-13, and never really recovered. Three offensive linemen had season-ending injuries and wide receiver Ryan Broyles, running back DeMarco Murray and guard Brian Simmons missed several games as well.
Last week, Oklahoma lost 41-13 in Lubbock to Texas Tech, its most lopsided defeat in four years. Stoops and his staff are trying to stay positive and get the team to finish on a higher note.
"They are still putting forth the effort and investing in the week and getting ready to play," Stoops said. "They are still young kids. Everything in life doesn't always go your way. In the end, we have had a lot of fortune around here. This has been a very unusual year the way it has all happened and you have to work through it. Some things are our fault as coaches, some things are their faults as players and then other things are nobody's fault. The fact that all of these guys are out, you can't blame anyone for that."
Junior offensive lineman Brian Lepak said the disappointment of the season means the team has had to "reframe" things as it looks toward the end of 2009.
"At this point in the season it's about what are we going to do to get better?" Lepak said. "What are we going to do for ourselves? So this weekend it's about going out and beating Oklahoma State. Let's play to the best of our ability and let's go get it done."
Richard Durrett covers college sports for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.