Preseason polls are neither art nor science, but if there is a prevailing formula for making up a too-soon top 25, it seems to be to Mark Schlabach, Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples and CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd, combine to keep eight of last year's final top 10 in their top 10 to start the season, with only three newcomers (strong finishers Virginia Tech, Nebraska and Wisconsin) between them.
Aside from the odd upstart setting up for one of the best seasons in school history, the annual exception to that continuity is what you might call the Mulligan Team, the perennial powerhouse granted automatic passage back into the pundits' good graces after a disappointing finish on the strength of the brand. Last year, that team was LSU, an 8-5 also-ran in 2008 that found itself hovering in and around the top 10 in the spring and summer rankings, as usual. This year, that team is clearly Oklahoma – Staples, Schlabach and Dodd all rank the Sooners in the top dozen despite last year's five-loss flop – for obvious reasons that go beyond "It's Oklahoma and Oklahoma is (almost) always good":
• They were unlucky last year. I don't just mean "unlucky" in the obvious, "lose two All-Americans/soon-to-be first-round draft picks before halftime of the first game" way. The Sooners were mathematically unlucky: Last month, a math-oriented Michigan fan at MGoBlog ran the numbers on fumbles, blocked kicks and other outlying harbingers of (mis)fortune and found Oklahoma was easily the unluckiest team in the country in 2009 – to the extent that, if it played the same schedule over again, even without the injuries that shelved stars Sam Bradford and Jermaine Gresham for the season, the Sooners could expect to improve their 8-5 record by three full games.
Besides losing Bradod and Gresham, the offensive line was constantly shuffled and reshuffled among four new starters, including a converted tight end who started the season opener at center just days after moving to the position out of desperation.
• They were often dominant, anyway. A TCU site, the Purple Wimple, compiled the most straightforward possible statistical formula (National Rank in Scoring Offense + National Rank in Scoring Defense) to develop his "Dominance Rankings," in which Oklahoma comes in eighth (7th in scoring defense, 29th on offense), well ahead of the likes of Cincinnati, Oregon, Ohio State, Georgia Tech and Iowa, all of which finished top-10 seasons in BCS games. When the Sooners won, they won big: Six of seven regular season wins came by at least 23 points, highlighted by a 65-10 kneecapping of Texas A&M and a 27-0 shutout over Oklahoma State at the end of the year. (The 31-27 bowl win over Stanford was the only triumph decided by a single-digit margin.)
On the other hand, Oklahoma's first four losses came by a combined 14 points, all against teams that finished the season in the top 20 (BYU, Miami, Texas, Nebraska), all away from Norman. Until the November flop at Texas Tech, the Sooners had been in every game deep into the fourth quarter and were conceivably only a handful of plays from being undefeated – again, without Bradford and Gresham.
• Landry Jones took his lumps. As id the very green, inconsistent offensive line. The lanky redshirt freshman started 10 games, some of them spectacular (he was the Big 12's Offensive Player of the Week in his first start, when he set a school record with six touchdown passes in a 45-0 rout over Tulsa) and some of them, well, very freshman-esque (he was picked twice in the loss to Texas and a whopping five times by Nebraska). As a somewhat seasoned sophomore, he has a real chance to lead the Big 12 in yards and touchdowns while cutting down the mistakes under (presumably) far less pressure.
That's the persuasive half of the argument, anyway. Ironically enough, it's almost easier to drum up that kind of optimism about a team that's already gone through a growing-pain phase, when the worst seems to be behind it – the focus tends to dwell on the assumption that things certainly can't get worse. (And they were still so close.) Whereas a team coming off yet another predictable 10 or 11-win campaign wouldn't bring as much positive spin to counter some harsh realities that could become burdens this fall:
• It's not the same defense. The only reason the Sooners were in so many close games despite the massive regression on offense was the D, which rebounded from a relatively mediocre effort in 2008 to finish in the top 10 nationally in total, scoring, rushing and pass efficiency defense, and just outside in takeaways. The heart of that unit, all-everything defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, has moved on to early draft glory, along with five other starters (to various degrees of draft glory their own selves). Opposite the inevitable offensive improvement is the reality that it's almost impossible to hold Texas, Nebraska and Oklahoma State to a single touchdown between them (I'm not counting the 'Huskers' one-yard "drive" for their only TD following an interception in Lincoln) two years in a row.
• The tough games aren't going anywhere. Ou won only one last year in another team's stadium, at Kansas in the midst of the full-scale Jayhawk implosion that sparked Mark Mangino's abrupt ouster at the end of the season, and lost two of three at neutral sites. Besides the Red River Shootout with Texas, the Sooners will be at Cincinnati, at Missouri, at Texas A&M and at Oklahoma State, all high-octane challenges that can threaten to sink any outfit still struggling to find itself.
• Landry Jones still isn't Sam Bradford. And his line isn't Bradford's line, a cohesive, veteran group that made their Hesiman-winning slinger the best-protected quarterback in America in 2007-08. That's not an entirely fair comparison, given Bradford and Company's scorched-earth march into record books in 2008, but the shortcomings of the revamped line were readily apparent from the first game, when Bradford was bounced from the lineup for the first time, and didn't obviously improve as the season wore on.
Some of that has to do with youth and injuries, and should naturally improve in their second full season together. But given last year's anemic production against ranked teams – 12.4 points per game en route to an 0-5 record against opponents in the final AP poll – the offense still has to be considered a work in progress on a BCS-hopeful level until further notice.