|The Sooners return eight offensive and eight defensive players who started the Insight Bowl. (Getty Images)|
TEMPE, Ariz. -- On Thursday, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops talked about the Sooners' tradition. He mentioned the Sooners' seven national titles.
Oklahoma has won "more than most people do," Stoops said.
This year, the Sooners were the overwhelming favorites to win an eighth national championship. They were ranked No. 1 in both of the preseason Associated Press and USA Today coaches polls.
With 14 starters returning from last year's 12-2 Fiesta Bowl and Big 12 championship team, the Sooners expected this season to be a historic one.
Unfortunately, it was.
Friday night's 31-14 victory against unranked Iowa at the Insight Bowl capped off one of the most disappointing seasons in Oklahoma's storied history and also put the Sooners' in some not-so-illustrious company.
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Ranked No. 19 entering the game, Oklahoma will become only the third preseason No. 1 ranked team in the last 27 years that will finish the season ranked outside the top 10 in the final AP poll. The others, according to collegepollarchive.com were Georgia, which finished No. 13 in 2008, and Penn State, finishing No. 16 in 1997.
The Sooners' slide can be attributed to several factors: season-ending injuries to leading receiver Ryan Broyles and rusher Dom Whaley, transfers, discipline problems and a couple of head-scratching losses. The 41-38 defeat to Texas Tech as a four-touchdown favorite was the worst upset loss in Stoops' career and OU's 44-10 beat down by Oklahoma State was the most points the Sooners allowed to the Cowboys since 1945. Against Iowa, Oklahoma was miserable at the outset and not much better at the end. But the Sooners did just enough to hang on for the victory.
In the first quarter the Sooners had only seven yards and one first down, but led 7-0 thanks to Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg's perfect pass to Oklahoma cornerback Jamell Fleming, whose interception return and a late-hit penalty on Iowa gave OU first-and-goal at the 5.
The Sooners' were outgained by Iowa through the first half, but mustered up enough energy to take a 21-0 third quarter lead and then held on down the stretch after Iowa pulled within 21-14.
Iowa actually finished the game with more yards than Oklahoma (292-275) and more first downs (21-16), but the Hawkeyes ultimately played like the mediocre 7-6 and 4-4 Big Ten team that they've been all season.
That allowed Oklahoma to get a 10th victory, the Sooners' 10th double-digit win season under Stoops. But thankfully for Oklahoma, 2012 is only a day away because the Sooners would just as soon forget about 2011.
Stoops admitted he's had more players that have been academically suspended or missed practice than any time in his 13 seasons.
Stoops said that those problem players account for only 2 percent of the team, but eat up "90 percent of my time."
Whether that was a contributing factor or a coincidence during the Sooners' 3-3 finish in their final six regular season games is unknown.
Iowa's Kirk Ferentz has experienced what Stoops has gone through but to a smaller extent: hefty preseason expectations followed by a disappointing season.
In 2010, Iowa returned a ton of star players and was ranked in the top 10 of the preseason AP poll only to finish the season unranked with five losses.
"There are so many variables that go into it," Ferentz said of not meeting the preseason expectations. "We live in a society that wants to predict everything, who will win the Heisman. We all want to know that in July. That's one of the great things about college sports. There [are] surprises and there are going to be twists and turns.
"At the end of the day, you just can't predict. Everybody wants to and you try to and you have the evidence. But it really gets down to all the twists and turns that take place in the 12-game schedule. So many things that will happen: injuries, breaks. Disappointing things that happen. That's what makes sports, I think, so much fun to follow."
Fun for some, misery for others.
Stoops was agitated when asked about the Sooners' season that went from being the nation's No. 1 preseason team to a team that finished in a third-place tie in the Big 12 with a underwhelming defense.
"We've played over 100 years of football at Oklahoma and we have seven national championships," Stoops said. "So every single year you don't win one, that can't be a bad year.
"And we've played for many others. But, in the end, not every year things are going to work that way, whether it is a certain break here or there or injuries or whatnot or you just didn't play as well and you catch a team that's hot. That's going to happen."
That's happened a lot more frequently at Oklahoma.
Only once in the last 11 seasons has Oklahoma finished with a better final AP ranking than its preseason AP ranking. Does that mean the Sooners are consistently overrated or do they underachieve? Or is it a combination of both?
Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer spent 16 seasons leading the Sooners. He knows all about leaving up to the expectations in Norman. He called it "feeding the monster."
Stoops knows all about "the monster." He joked that if the Sooners don't win the national title Oklahoma fans "are ready to hang me from the nearest tree.
"The pluses [of high expectations and rankings] are that usually you are someone that when things go right, whether you get the right balance, you stay healthy, those kinds of things, you have a chance to actually do [win a national championship] it," Stoops said. "And we have been in four [BCS title games] in the last 12 years.
"And then the downside is if you don't win it, as I said, then it isn't good enough. But generally the other good part of that is going back and forth, generally. Even though a bunch of these years we didn't actually do it [win a national championship], we still were Big 12 champions and still put ourselves and had chances, too, to win it on the field.
"I'm not complaining. No one gets more disappointed or angry than I do when we don't win. So that's the competitive nature in you. That's just how it is at some places."
Four months ago before the season ever begun, Stoops said his "feeling is it is about time [to win a national title]. We need to win one."
Earlier this year, Oklahoma senior linebacker Travis Lewis said this was a "national championship or bust" season. So the Sooners went bust.
For a second consecutive season, the Sooners' season ended in the Arizona desert. This time, it wasn't as the Big 12's champions.
"The guys played well," Stoops said after the victory. "Our defense was outstanding. First half we weren't far off. And the second half was outstanding. I'm happy for our seniors and this gives us a lot of momentum for next year."
Ah yes, next year. It will be here before you know it. And guess what: the Sooners return eight offensive and eight defensive players who started the Insight Bowl. Quarterback Landry Jones still has to decide whether to return for his senior year and if he does, watch out.
More high expectations once again for the Sooners in 2012. The monster awaits.