By John Shinn
CNHI News Service
SOUTH BEND, Ind. – There was a time when Oklahoma never had to worry about impressing anyone. Its schedule was traditionally littered with Top 25 Big 12 Conference opponents throughout October and November. Just winning those games were often enough to convince a college football nation of Sooner greatness.
But take a look at the remaining nine regular-season games on the 14th-ranked Sooners’ schedule. None of those future opponents are ranked in the top 10 of the latest the Associated Press Top 25. Only four teams – No. 22 Notre Dame, No. 24 Texas Tech, No. 19 Baylor and No. 11 Oklahoma State – are ranked at all.
The opportunities for impressive victories are limited.
It’s that scenario that makes OU’s meeting with the Fighting Irish (3-1) at 2:30 p.m. today at Notre Dame Stadium so critical. It’s the first real chance OU (3-0) has to make a quality impression.
“Absolutely,” linebacker Corey Nelson said when asked if the Notre Dame game was OU’s first real chance to bolster its perception. “It also determines how well we’ll look for the upcoming season.”
That aspect is something that rides along with the significance of pitting two current and traditional college football powers against each other. Something that should always be remembered about OU coach Bob Stoops’ tenure is these September meetings with well-established programs have been annual. The Sooners have frequently faced at least one such game every year since 2002.
Winning a decent amount of them have helped OU dramatically in the BCS standings. At the same time, they’ve served as barometers for the upcoming Big 12 Conference season.
The Sooners already have a conference game under their belt, but eight will remain after OU returns home from South Bend.
“This can obviously set the tone for what’s coming up if you play well,” OU offensive lineman Bronson Irwin said.
There was time when a Sooner win over Texas would send OU shooting up the polls each October or, at least, solidify a spot in the top five if the Sooners were still undefeated. The Longhorns are struggling for the fourth time in the last five years and won’t be ranked when the Red River rivalry comes around Oct. 12 at the Cotton Bowl.
Thus, the meeting with Notre Dame takes on added consequence. The Sooners fully understand the ramifications of today’s game.
“Tough opponent (that plays) kind of a style we’re not used to (and) we play a style they're not used to, so the line of scrimmage is going to be one of those things where we'll see where our defensive line and where our offensive line are at this point in time,” OU center Gabe Ikard said. “It’s one of those things where we can go up there and if we put a lot of points on the board we can make a statement, but then if something like last year happens, it can work against us too. We realize how important this game is for our season.”
OU was in a very similar situation when the Fighting Irish rolled into Norman last year. Both were top 10 teams and the late October meeting had national championship implications.
The Sooners lost, 30-13, giving up 17 unanswered points in the final 6 minutes.
OU won its final four regular-season games that followed, but the Sooners’ national championship hopes were shattered. Though a loss today would only be OU’s first, given the schedule still to play, it’s hard to see how the Sooners could get back in the national championship conversation.
Stoops pleads with his team to not look that far down the road. The only game the whole season rides on is the next one.
“I believe winning this game, one way or the other, isn't going to do anything for the rest of the season. Well, that's not the best way to say it,” he said. “When you win, it gives you momentum, but at the end of the day it's not a conference game.
“We’ve played one conference game. There's a big schedule still in front of us.”
Still, the landscape for OU has shifted. Opportunities to impress are limited. Today shouldn’t be wasted.