We've established already that Oklahoma is this fall's undisputed "Mulligan Team," the perennial power granted automatic passage back into pundits' good graces on the strength of the brand. And I'm personally on record (tentatively) floating the Sooners as Big 12 South favorites over attrition-wracked Texas. Only an outfit with OU's stellar reputation could ever hope to rebound from an 8-5 plunge to the fringes of the top 10 in the span of a few quiet months, especially on the heels of sending four first-round picks – three with eligibility remaining – on to the draft.
But there are mulligans, and there are borderline miracles, which is what top-shelf preseason guru Phil Steele is apparently projecting when he ranks the Sooners as his preseason No. 1 in his labyrinthine summer magazine. (The annual jampacked! tome isn't on shelves yet, but a check with an independent source who also received an early copy of this year's opus confirms the ranking.) As I pointed out last week, when still-emerging project Terrelle Pryor was leaked as Steele's All-American quarterback, it's his willingness to make seemingly wild forecasts based on mountains of trend-obsessed data, rigid "power rankings" and other miscellaneous heuristics that sets him apart in a crowded field. It also sets him up for more than his share of ridicule without the safety of the conventional wisdom, which so far has been unwilling to push the Sooners into the top ten, much less the top spot overall. This was, after all, a team last seen going 0-5 against opponents that finished in the final polls.
If you're deadset on a contrarian No. 1 to open the season, though, OU has all the darkhorse credentials: With 10 starts under his belt, sophomore Landry Jones now qualifies as a seasoned quarterback, and returns a similarly beleaguered but battle-tested offensive line. There are bona fide playmakers in running back DeMarco Murray and receiver Ryan Broyles. The defense, after a relatively sketchy effort in 2008, returned to the national elite last year in every major statistical category. And by almost any measure, the Sooners were the unluckiest team in America: Besides a debilitating rash of key injuries, OU was 0-4 in regular season games decided by a touchdown or less, falling to eventual top-20 finishers BYU, Miami, Texas and Nebraska by a combined 12 points. The Sooners' eight wins, on the other hand, came by an average margin of more than 31 points, none of them closer than 12 until the 31-27 bowl win over Stanford. Statistically, it was still a far more dominant team than the record suggested.
There are precedents for such a rebound, too. Beginning with Oklahoma's out-of-nowhere BCS championship run in 2000, three teams in the last decade – the 2000 Sooners, Ohio State in 2002 and LSU in 2003 – have rebounded from unranked, five-loss seasons to win the BCS championship, all with expectations of far more modest improvement. Two others, Washington in 2000 and Auburn in 2004, came off five-loss seasons to finish within very plausible striking distance of a BCS title shot, and Alabama surged from 7-6 in 2007 to within half a quarter of a BCS championship bid following a 12-0 regular season in 2008.
And when you consider the glaring flaws of the Crimson Tide as the consensus No. 1 going into this fall – again, nine new starters on defense; nine – 2010 seems to scream for an outside-the-box contender to emerge from the pack. Frankly, outside of the unanimous top three ('Bama, Boise State and Ohio State), a healthy, rejuvenated Oklahoma makes about as much sense at No. 1 as anyone else.
Convinced? Of course not. You shouldn't be. And, in late May, you don't have to be – we'll see where things stand in late October. In the meantime, though, drop the modesty, Sooner fans, and welcome back the world of unlimited possibilities.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.