Oklahoma football: Sooners no stranger to Top-5 season starts

NORMAN, OK - NOVEMBER 10: The Oklahoma Sooners take the field before the game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on November 10, 2018 in Norman, Oklahoma. Oklahoma defeated Oklahoma State 48-47. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
NORMAN, OK - NOVEMBER 10: The Oklahoma Sooners take the field before the game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on November 10, 2018 in Norman, Oklahoma. Oklahoma defeated Oklahoma State 48-47. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** /

Oklahoma football history is filled with preseason rankings placing the Sooners in the Top-Five nationally.

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Last week, the first of the two major college football polls released its much-anticipated preseason rankings. The Amway Coaches Poll ranked Oklahoma No. 4 to begin the 2019 college football season, which for the Sooners officially kicks off 27 days from now.

In a couple of weeks — Aug. 19, to be precise — the second shoe will drop when the Associated Press reveals its preseason Top-25. Given the history of the two polls over the past 18 years, don’t expect there to be much difference in how the Sooners will fare when the the AP media representatives have their crack at the preseason rankings.

While all of this makes for nice media copy, especially now with the new season well within site, we all know that preseason predictions are the analysts’ playground, a placeholder in time by which to measure how a team is living up to preseason expectations as time marches on through a season schedule that is anything but predictable.

Head coach Lincoln Riley and the Sooners know as well as anybody that it’s not where you start the season, but where you finish it, that matters the most. And Oklahoma knows a thing or two about both starting and finishing in the Top-Five, but not necessarily in the same season.

Oklahoma’s goal each and every college football season is to win a national championship. By accomplishing that extremely difficult feat, which they have done seven times in their 125-year history, the Sooners automatically place a check by their secondary goal, which is to win a conference championship. They’ve done the latter 49 times, which leads all major college teams.

Since the 2002 season, OU has been ranked among the Top 5 teams in one or both of the two major preseason national polls 10 times. including three of the last four seasons. Seven times during that span, the Sooners have begun the season no lower than No. 4 in both polls.

five times in the last 18 years (16 under Bob Stoops and the last two under Riley). when Oklahoma was ranked No. 5 or higher in the Preseason Coaches Poll, the Sooners have finished the season either playing for the BCS National Championship (2003, 2004 and 2008) or making the College Football Playoff (2018).

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The other two times OU has made the CFP, in 2015 and 2017, the Sooners started out No. 19 and No. 8, respectively, in the Preseason Coaches Poll.

It certainly is a lot easier to start the season ranked high, if you are a Power Five team like the Sooners, than it is to find yourself there at the end of a grueling college season.

As we mentioned earlier in this article, Oklahoma knows something about the both ecstasy and the agony of beginning the season as one of the nation’s top-four teams. No matter what the preseason rankings say, you still have to go out an get it done on the field of play.

In 2011, for example, Oklahoma began the season as the nation’s top-ranked team in both the Associated Press as well as the Coaches preseason polls. The Sooners were 6-0 through the first half of the season, including a dominating 55-17 win over archrival Texas. In Game No. 7, unranked Texas Tech strolled into Norman and not only ended OU’s undefeated season, but also snapped a 39-game Sooner home winning streak. Oklahoma went on to lose two conference games that season, finishing a 10-3 and ranked 15th in the country in the final Coaches Poll.

In 2009, with quarterback Sam Bradford returning for another campaign after winning the Heisman Trophy the previous year, Oklahoma started out ranked No. 3 in both major preseason polls. Bradford was injured in the very first game that season, and the season unraveled from there. The Sooners ended up 8-5, one of just three non-10-win seasons under Stoops, and outside of the Top-25 rankings.

And we’ll end this walk on the dark side with a reminder of the 2016 season. Oklahoma began that season ranked No. 3 in both the Coaches and AP preseason polls. The Sooners were upset by Houston in the very first game that year. Here’s the rub, that’s the same team OU will face to open this season and, by the way, with a new head coach, Dana Holgorsen, who knows the Sooners very well, having coached the past eight seasons at West Virginia.

OU’s high preseason ranking was exposed early and often in just the first three games of the 2016 season. Even with Baker Mayfield in his second full season as the Sooners’ starting quarterback, OU struggled in a 33-23 season-opening loss to Houston, and two games later, at home, Ohio State manhandled the Sooners handing them a humbling 45-24 loss. OU would go on to win its next 10 consecutive games, but by that time the damage to the Sooners’ Playoff chances that season had long been sealed.

So while it is a very good thing for Sooner fans that Oklahoma’s hopes, expectations and preseason rankings are at a high level again to start the 2019 college football season, there is still an entire season to be played. Championships are won by taking care of business one game at a time. The most important game is the very next one on the schedule.

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We should have an excellent idea by the end of September if this year’s team has both the mental and physical toughness to both start strong and stay that way throughout the season.