The Big 12 South is likely the most competitive division in college football, with four teams ranked in the top eight in the country. Although Oklahoma is the only one of those schools with a loss, the Sooners have hardly given up on making another run at the division title.
After responding impressively after a loss to a division rival, the No. 4 Sooners continue their quest for their seventh Big 12 South crown in nine years when they visit Kansas State on Saturday.
The annual rivalry game between Oklahoma and Texas usually goes a long way toward determining the champion of the Big 12 South, which has been won by the Sooners or Longhorns each of the last nine seasons.
In perhaps the deepest division race in Big 12 history, however, the Sooners (6-1, 2-1) aren’t sweating their 45-35 defeat to Texas on Oct. 11. The South boasts three of the Football Bowl Subdivision’s nine undefeated teams in No. 1 Texas, seventh-ranked Oklahoma State and No. 8 Texas Tech, so the standings figure to be shaken up substantially before the division is decided.
This is the first of three straight games against unranked opponents for the Sooners, who will try to avoid another loss while their division rivals beat up on each other over the next several weeks. Texas hosts Oklahoma State on Saturday before visiting Texas Tech the following weekend, while Oklahoma State and Texas Tech meet in Lubbock on Nov. 8.
Oklahoma did its part to remain in the hunt last Saturday, rebounding from its loss with a 45-31 win over then-No. 16 Kansas. Sam Bradford went 36-of-53 for a school-record 468 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions as the Sooners finished with 674 yards - their highest total since they had 829 in a 70-24 win over Kansas State in 1988.
“Either we could have come out here and just been really disappointed about last week and let it affect our play, or we could have come out and played well tonight,” Bradford said. “I felt like we did come out and we responded to the loss from last week.”
Bradford may be the biggest key to the Sooners’ title chances, as the sophomore ranks third in the FBS with 2,520 passing yards, second with 26 touchdowns and fifth with a 71.4 completion percentage.
“He doesn’t surprise me at all anymore,” center Jon Cooper said. “I think he could throw it from the 1-yard line to the other end zone and it wouldn’t surprise me. Everything he does used to make me say ‘wow,’ now it’s just like, ‘Well, that’s just Sam.’ He’s just amazing every game.”
On Saturday, though, Bradford could be missing one of his favorite targets in Manuel Johnson, who has 33 catches for 574 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns. Coach Bob Stoops said Monday that Johnson dislocated his left elbow in last Saturday’s game and is doubtful to play this week.
With Johnson sidelined, the Sooners will have to rely more heavily on lower-profile receivers such as Ryan Broyles, Quentin Chaney and Adron Tennell.
“We just need to use them all,” said Stoops, whose team had 10 players with at least one catch last week. “It’s not our style to concentrate on one guy. We feel our best asset is using all of them and making them defend all of them. Sam does a great job with his reads and getting the ball to the guy who is most open.”
Bradford hopes to continue his success in his first career game against Kansas State. The Wildcats (4-3, 1-2) were held to a season-low point total in a 14-13 defeat at Colorado last Saturday, and are averaging 23.3 points in their three losses compared to 50.8 in four wins.
That may not bode well for the meeting with Oklahoma, which ranks third in the Big 12 in scoring defense at 20.7 points per game. Kansas State coach Ron Prince, though, remains optimistic.
“There is a way to win every game,” he said. “This will be a great opportunity for us to have them at home. … I think if we play well and prepare well, we will have a real good chance, like every week. I see signs of growth in our team and we will continue to push forward.”
Oklahoma has won five of its last six meetings with Kansas State to take a 68-17-4 advantage in the series, with a 30-10-1 lead in Manhattan. Stoops, a Kansas State assistant from 1989-95, is 4-1 against the Wildcats.
Kansas State’s last win in the series was five seasons ago, when the then-No. 13 Wildcats routed the undefeated and top-ranked Sooners 35-7 in the Big 12 championship game Dec. 6, 2003.