Whatever you think of Oklahoma's status as the consensus favorite to open at the top of the preseason polls, you can't accuse the Sooners of not knowing where their championship bread is buttered: Quarterback Landry Jones barely broke "a mental sweat" in Saturday's spring game, and top target Ryan Broyles didn't play at all. And why should they have? Jones and Broyles hooked up more times last year than any other pass-catch combo in America. If there's anything OU didn't need to see any more of in a glorified scrimmage, it's the key cogs in its prolific passing game.
Instead, all eyes were on the one glaring, red-siren question mark: The running backs. If there's any knock on the Sooners' front-running credentials, it's the all-purpose void left by workhorse DeMarco Murray, who capped his mercurial career last year by logging more touches for more yards than any other player in the Big 12. He leaves as OU's all-time leader in total yards, touchdowns and receiving yards by a running back. And of the four candidates seriously vying to replace him, three former top-100 recruits — sophomores Brennan Clay and Roy Finch (right) and true freshman Brandon Williams — were largely overshadowed by a walk-on. So, at what point is it normal to feel the beginning pangs of panic?
Not for a while still. In the first case, as reliable as Murray was, last year's ground game was one of the least productive in the Big 12, ahead of only the rock-bottom attacks of Colorado and Kansas, and was dead last in the conference in yards per carry. Those numbers should come up behind a virtually intact offensive line, regardless of who's carrying the ball. There's also no end to the untapped potential among Clay, Finch and Williams, whose collective recruiting hype matches any backfield's in the country.
Outside of the specifics of the Sooner depth chart, though, there's no broader pattern that requires a championship team to possess an NFL-bound bell cow — at least, not nearly to the extent that it requires it to possess, say, a first-rate secondary. Of the 22 teams that have played for the BCS championship since 2000, 16 have featured a 1,000-yard rusher, and two of the six that didn't featured the highly specific, highly effective talents of Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin, who combined for more than 1,300 yards as leaders of Florida's democratically dominant attack in 2008.
Other successful platoons on championship teams have usually been born of an irresistible 1-2 punch rather than an absence of an obvious frontrunner: See Cadillac Williams/Ronnie Brown at Auburn, Reggie Bush/LenDale White at USC, Vince Young/Jamaal Charles at Texas, Tebow/Harvin at Florida and, yes, Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray at Oklahoma, both 1,000-yard rushers on the highest-scoring offense in college football history in 2008.
Ironically enough, the handiest precedent for championship-caliber offenses that made hay with a truly underwhelming backfield is Texas, which went 12-1 and staked a legitimate claim on the national title with a Colt McCoy-led running game in 2008 and rode an even less-inspiring posse all the way to the championship game a year later. Including McCoy, both of those outfits deployed a five-man rotation that logged upwards of 30 carries per game with no identifiable starter from week-to-week, much less a star.
If Sooner fans can't quite stomach that comparison, maybe they can appreciate the other, even more obvious precedents: Oklahoma's championship-bound teams in 2000 and 2003, both of which were oriented around a deadlier-than-he-looks quarterback — undersized juco transfer Josh Heupel was Heisman runner-up in 2000; Jason White won the trophy in '03 with duct tape in place of his knee ligaments — whose extreme efficiency made up for a decidedly non-deadly running game. Statistically speaking, those outfits still stand as the two least potent ground attacks to play for a BCS title in the Series' 13-year history.
It's just a coincidence that Heupel is back in the saddle this year for his first season as the primary play-caller, in place of departed offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. But if he has to lean on another inconsistent, unheralded committee to patch together a title run, at least he knows it can be done. And he'll take it.
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.