NORMAN, Okla. – A few days ago, upon learning that he'd been named Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Week, Oklahoma linebacker Keenan Clayton made some peculiar comments to reporters covering the Sooners' football team.
"If you watched the film that I watched, you wouldn't have given it to me," Clayton said. "I didn't deserve it."
Clayton's reaction might have come as a surprise to some – but it didn't shock coach Bob Stoops.
"Guys on this team want more," Stoops said. "They're more demanding. They expect more than they have in other years."
So, too, do Oklahoma's fans.
Not just of the Sooners, but of Stoops.
As has been the case so many times before, top-ranked Oklahoma will be a favorite to play for the national championship if it defeats rival No. 5 Texas in Saturday's Red River Rivalry at the Cotton Bowl. Only now, instead of expecting the Sooners to flourish, crimson and cream partisans are just hoping they don't flop.
Once known as "Big Game Bob," Stoops' reputation has taken some hits the past few years. He still is one of the top coaches in the game, but folks these days are talking less about his five conference championships and more about his recent performance when it matters most.
A loss to Colorado last season kept Oklahoma out of the BCS title game and into the Fiesta Bowl, where it was embarrassed by West Virginia. The year before, he was outcoached in a loss against Boise State.
Stoops is 102-22 during his nine-plus seasons at Oklahoma. But he's 4-5 in bowl games and just 2-4 in BCS games.
More and more, Sooners players said they're teased about being "chokers."
"We know what people are saying about us," running back Mossis Madu said. "We hear jokes about it all the time. This year's team wants to be different."
Stoops and Oklahoma have the chance to be just that.
It's too early to be certain, but those who follow the team closely have suggested that the 2008 squad may be Stoops' best since he arrived in Norman in 1999.
Led by future first-round draft pick Duke Robinson, Oklahoma has one of the most imposing offensive lines in college football, and the defensive line isn't far behind. Safety Nic Harris and receiver Juaquin Iglesias are both veterans and future pros, and – although they're not Adrian Peterson – tailbacks DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown are combining to average 148 rushing yards a game.
The real difference-maker, though, is quarterback Sam Bradford, who is among the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy despite being only a sophomore. A second-year starter, Bradford ranks No. 2 in the nation in pass efficiency. He's thrown 18 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
Oklahoma won a national championship with Josh Heupel in 2001 and finished second with Heisman winner Jason White two years later. But in terms of sheer talent, never in the Stoops era have the Sooners had a QB this good.
The thought is that Bradford will have his way with Texas' mediocre pass defense Saturday, when we also could see the Sooners unveil some wrinkles they haven't shown in their 5-0 start.
"We need (to win) a game like this and six or seven others," Stoops said this week. "Then you guys can decide whether we're any good or not."
A victory over the Longhorns on Saturday almost certainly would set up a dramatic finish. The Sooners probably won't be challenged again until Texas Tech visits Norman on Nov. 22. A week later they travel to Stillwater to face Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale.
But, again, it all starts Saturday. Stoops is 6-3 against Texas, but true to form, he has lost to Mack Brown twice in the past three seasons.
"We can't ever get too confident about where we're at," defensive end Auston English said. "It'd be exciting to beat the No. 5 team, but even if we do win, it's not like anyone is going to crown us champion."
Of course they won't.
Lately, at least, people seem to know better.
- Bob Stoops