Oklahoma Sooners: Michael Hunnicutt

During the summer, ESPN.com is taking a closer look at each scholarship player on Oklahoma’s roster in our Crimson Countdown series. Each day, we analyze each player’s impact on the program since arriving on campus, his potential impact this fall, and his long-term projection. Starting with No. 1 Dominique Alexander, the series follows the roster numerically through No. 98 Chuka Ndulue.

[+] EnlargeMichael Hunnicutt
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsOklahoma has one of the best placekickers in the country in senior Michael Hunnicutt.
No. 18 Michael Hunnicutt, kicker, 6-foot-1, 178 pounds, senior

Impact thus far: Hunnicutt rivals any player on the roster in terms of his impact on the program during his career. He completely stabilized the Sooners' kicking game when he took over place kicking duties in 2011. Hunnicutt made 21 of 24 field goals as a freshman, 17 of 21 field goals as a sophomore and 24 of 27 field goals as a junior. He’s made 86.1 percent of his career field goal attempts, including 72.7 percent of his attempts from 40 yards or longer (8 of 11) and 97.5 percent of his career PATs (159 of 163).

Impact in 2014: Hunnicutt should continue to be one of the nation’s top kickers and give the Sooners piece of mind that they will get points every time they drive inside the opponent’s 30-yard line.

Long term upside: The senior is already among the nation’s best at his position. It could be an All-American final season for Hunnicutt.

Evaluation grade for Hunnicutt: B. The Sooners didn’t give him a scholarship out of high school, the lone reason they don’t get an A. But he was a walk-on who has made a major impact in every season of his career.

Development grade for Hunnicutt: A. Even though he was a walk-on the Sooners didn’t hesitate to give him the starting job as soon as he earned it as a redshirt freshman. And they promptly put him on scholarship.

Quotable: “Michael has been excellent all spring. He has been great and I think he is within an eyelash of being a First Team All-American a year ago. He is set to have a big year.” -- coach Bob Stoops after the spring game.
Only one Big 12 player is projected to be an first-team All-American on Phil Steele’s Preseason All-American teams, which were released on ESPN.com on Friday.

The conference had 13 players earn honors on the four preseason All-American squads selected by Steele. Here’s a look at the honorees:

First team

WR Antwan Goodley, Baylor

Second team

WR Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
DE Ryan Mueller, Kansas State
LB Eric Striker, Oklahoma

Third team

C B.J. Finney, Kansas State
T Le’Raven Clark, Texas Tech
T Spencer Drango, Baylor
DE Devonte Fields, TCU
DE Cedric Reed, Texas

Fourth team

QB Bryce Petty, Baylor
CB Quandre Diggs, Texas
S Sam Carter, TCU
K Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma

Some quick thoughts:
  • Goodley and Lockett are essentially 1A and 1B in the battle to be considered the top receiver in the conference. Goodley earned the spot from Steele thanks to Petty and the Bears’ stat-stuffing offensive attack.
  • Kansas State and Baylor each have three players on the list, tied for tops in the conference.
  • A strong argument could be made for Petty to be the first-team quarterback, but it’s hard to find fault in Steele’s choices of Marcus Mariota (Oregon), Jameis Winston (Florida State) and Braxton Miller (Ohio State), as all three quarterbacks ahead of Petty are the foundation of their team’s success.
  • Even though the Big 12 has three different defensive ends on the list, a strong argument could be made for Baylor’s Shawn Oakman and Oklahoma’s Charles Tapper to have a place on one of the four teams.
  • Zero Big 12 running backs made the list, a sign of the relative inexperience at the position across the conference. Baylor’s Shock Linwood, Texas’ Malcolm Brown and Oklahoma State’s Desmond Roland have the strongest argument for a spot on one of those teams.
  • Hunnicutt is on the fourth team but is second to none nationally, particularly with his accuracy on field goals inside the 40-yard line. He is 62 of 72 field goal attempts heading into his senior season.
  • Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Kansas and West Virginia didn't have anyone make the list. It's not a huge surprise as those teams and players must enter the season having to earn respect.
With spring ball done, we’re re-examining and re-ranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team, continuing Friday with special teams. These outlooks will probably look different in August. But here’s how we see them post-spring:

1. TCU (pre-spring ranking: 1): The Horned Frogs’ coverage units were pretty lousy last year. If they can shore those up, this could be an elite special-teams unit with kicker Jaden Oberkrom, punter Ethan Perry and returners B.J. Catalon and Cameron Echols-Luper.

2. Kansas State (3): Freshman Judah Jones, who was one of the stars of the spring game with a 51-yard touchdown catch, fielded kickoffs, too. Cornerback Morgan Burns also added a 39-yard kickoff return. They could take some pressure off Tyler Lockett in the return game and also him to get a breather when needed.

3. Baylor (2): The return units are going to be spectacular, and Spencer Roth is one of the best punters in the nation. But field-goal kicking is an unknown. Freshman Chris Callahan has taken over for now as the team’s kicker, but missed one chip shot badly in the spring game. Callahan could be fine. But as Oklahoma State found out last year, rolling with a first-time kicker can be dicey.

[+] EnlargeMichael Hunnicutt
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsMichael Hunnicutt has the ability to become Oklahoma's first All-America kicker.
4. Oklahoma (5): Place-kicker Michael Hunnicutt (Moneycutt?) nailed field goals of 52 and 47 yards during a windy spring game. Amazingly, the Sooners have never had an All-America kicker. Hunnicutt has the potential to be the first.

5. West Virginia (7): Josh Lambert created plenty of buzz this spring, including his 53-yard field goal in the spring game. Mario Alford also took the opening kick in the spring game to the house. Punter Nick O’Toole is a proven commodity. If Lambert has a big sophomore year (he was really good as a freshman) and Alford’s TD is a sign of improvement in the return units, which ranked last in the Big 12 last year, this could become one of the league’s better special-teams units.

6. Texas Tech (4): The Red Raiders continued to have issues fielding punts during the spring, which is probably one reason why the return slots were left blank in the team’s post-spring depth chart. Incoming freshman Ian Sadler, who had six return touchdowns during his senior season of high school, could solidify that spot once he arrives on campus.

7. Iowa State (6): Sophomore kicker Cole Netten showed off his big leg in the spring game by making a 56-yard field goal. That came after coach Paul Rhoads gave him a shot at a 62-yard attempt. Netten, combined with the dynamic return trio of Jarvis West, DeVondrick Nealy and Aaron Wimberly, should translate into a strong special-teams unit. If incoming freshman Colin Downing can adequately step in at punter, the unit will be even stronger.

8. Texas (8): Nick Rose showed a strong leg on a missed 55-yard field goal try in the spring game and converted a 40-yarder. William Russ averaged 43.3 yards per punt in the spring game. Those were positive signs, but replacing All-American kicker/punter Anthony Fera will be one of the underrated storylines in Charlie Strong’s first season.

9: Oklahoma State (10): With so much turnover on both sides of the ball, the Cowboys need their special teams to be much better than last season. They just might be, though. With his speed, Tyreek Hill will be a major factor in the return game. Also, place-kicker Ben Grogan, after a shaky freshman season, drew praise for his improvement this spring from coach Mike Gundy.

10. Kansas (9): Special teams did not excel in Kansas’ spring game. Matthew Wyman made a 23-yard field goal but missed an extra point. The punting in the game was mediocre as well. The Jayhawks reportedly have preferred walk-on John Duvic enrolling this summer. After setting the Illinois state high school record with five field goals in a game, he could be a welcomed addition.
Spring football has come to a close at Oklahoma.

The Sooners 15 practices answered some questions, but others remain. Now is the perfect time to update the some of the position battles that made this spring intriguing in Norman. We took a look at offense and defense earlier this week. We end the series on Friday with special teams.

[+] EnlargeSterling Shepard
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsSterling Shepard should be able to step up and fill the void left in OU's return game by the departure of Jalen Saunders.
Kicker

Pre-spring: Already considered among the nation’s best, Michael Hunnicutt is locked in as the Sooners’ starting kicker.

Post-spring: Not only should the Sooners feel great about Hunnicutt, he showed increased kicking prowess in the spring game. Long-range field goals have not been a strength for the 2013 Lou Groza Award semifinalist during his first three years, but he nailed two 40-plus yard field goals in the spring game, including a 53-yarder, although it was wind-aided.

Summer outlook: OU heads into the summer knowing it has one of the nation’s best kickers.

Punter

Pre-spring: Jed Barnett returns after his first season as OU’s punter, averaging 41.7 yards per punt.

Post-spring: Much like kicker, there's not much to see here. Barnett was solid during his first season and returns to give OU solid punting in his final year on campus. OU should exit the spring feeling good about both kicking positions.

Summer outlook: Barnett is a very solid punter and heads into the summer as the clear No. 1 guy. There’s no reason to think that will change.

Returners

Pre-spring: The Sooners lose all of their returners. Receiver Jalen Saunders was dynamic on punt returns and running backs Roy Finch and Brennan Clay were very productive kick returners. With that, there are plenty of questions about who will return kicks.

Post-spring:Receiver Sterling Shepard is in line to return punts. He was a superb punt returner in high school and has proven playmaking ability. Cornerback Zack Sanchez could also be an option as a punt returner this fall. Kick returns could be a good fit for running back Alex Ross or running back Daniel Brooks among several other young and talented options.

Summer outlook: OU will start finalizing its return game in August. Plenty of talented freshmen could get the opportunity, with Shepard looking like the lone frontrunner for any of the return positions.

“When we get our whole football team on here in the summer, that’s when I’ll identify and make final decisions on that,” special teams coordinator Jay Boulware said of potential punt and kick returners. “We have a lot of freshmen coming in and we have a lot of guys who are busting their butts right now. We won’t make any final decisions until towards the end of fall camp.”

Punt/kick coverage

Pre-spring: OU’s coverage teams could improve after allowing 15.6 yards per punt return and 23.28 yards per kick return in 2013. But OU’s coverage overall was pretty solid and its coverage units allowed then-freshmen like Ahmad Thomas, Dakota Austin and Keith Ford to get their feet wet and contribute during their first seasons.

Post-spring: Much like the returners, Boulware will be looking to finalize these units after the freshmen arrive. One key to keep an eye on will be OU’s attempt to replace Trey Millard, who was a special teams monster during his four seasons. Freshman Dimitri Flowers appears ready to help replace Millard on offense but Boulware said he’s not certain if the early enrollee can match Millard’s contributions on special teams as well.

Summer outlook: Special teams coverage units can be a way for true freshmen to get their foot in the door. Boulware likes the overall speed and athleticism on the roster this spring, so adding additional, hungry freshmen into the mix should help OU be able to field some of the quickest and more athletic coverage units in the Big 12 in 2014. The battle for special teams spots should be interesting to watch and could provide a glimpse at the young guys who could be the future on offense and defense.

Oklahoma held its spring game on Saturday with excitement around the program continuing to build this offseason. Here are some postgame thoughts, defense only, on OU’s spring finale. To be clear, this is an informal collection of my thoughts and observations after the spring game. For a more formal and general spring game review, check out this post from earlier today.

  • Linebacker Frank Shannon’s absence is disappointing, but Jordan Evans filled in at linebacker without looking like a weak link, much as he did against Texas Tech during his true freshman season a year ago. Evans is very athletic and comfortable in coverage. If Shannon, who is dealing with personal issues, is unable to return, OU can feel good about Evans’ spring-game production.
  • Ahmad Thomas looks like a potential difference-maker. He can play multiple positions in the secondary and he was consistently around the ball. A breakout sophomore campaign could be on the horizon.
  • The defensive line should be deep, athletic and productive. This unit could spark a special season if everyone continues to develop. From Charles Tapper to Jordan Wade to Charles Walker, it’s a very solid group of defensive linemen from top to bottom. Games are won in the trenches, so the Sooners should feel good about their chances this fall.
  • [+] EnlargeQuentin Hayes
    Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsQuentin Hayes is a returning starter at safety, but depth is a concern there.
    Cornerback Zack Sanchez is another Sooner who looks as if he’s taken a step forward. If he continues to progress, Sanchez could become a player who opponents think twice about testing. He was competitive and active on Saturday and played like OU's best cornerback.
  • Sophomore Dakota Austin looked solid opposite Sanchez, but the search for the other half of OU’s cornerback duo should carry deep into preseason camp. Stanvon Taylor and Cortez Johnson are also in the mix, but nobody has taken the job and run away with it. The Sooners need to shore up this spot, as this concern could be considered the top priority on the defensive side of the ball heading into the summer.
  • Linebacker Eric Striker is on the road to making several appearances on "SportsCenter" this fall. The pass-rushing dynamo was terrific as a sophomore and it looks like he could be even better as a junior. He's exceptionally quick off the edge and has a knack for getting to the quarterback.
  • The safety position looks like it is in good hands with Quentin Hayes and Hatari Byrd, but the depth behind them is a major summer storyline. Thomas and Julian Wilson, who sat out the spring, could help at the position and incoming freshman Steven Parker has the talent to step in immediately. It’s not a problem if OU remains injury-free, but it’s football, so heading into the season without a Plan B is fool’s gold.
  • Kicker Michael Hunnicutt has earned his nickname “Munnicutt” and his leg strength has improved. He made two 40-plus-yard field goals, one with the wind at his back and one into the wind. He’s one of the nation’s most consistent kickers, so increased long-range production is a major bonus.
  • Final thought: The excitement surrounding the Sooners program heading into 2014 is well-earned. This team could find itself in the College Football Playoff if Trevor Knight is consistent and efficient under center and the defense takes another step forward this fall. But don't lock them into the national title conversation quite yet, as several young players need to continue to develop and take their games to another level and show they are ready to perform at a championship level, week in and week out.
As we await the start of spring ball, we’ve been examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12. Thursday, we close this series out with special teams.

1. TCU: Honorable mention All-Big 12 place-kicker Jaden Oberkrom was 13 of 14 on field goals inside the 50 last season and drilled a 56-yarder late in the fourth quarter at Kansas State. B.J. Catalon was second in the league in kickoff returns and took one to the house in the opener against LSU. Freshman Cameron Echols-Luper took his first punt return 51 yards and had a 41-yarder in the season finale against Baylor. Brandon Carter has had moments in the return game in the past as well. Ethan Perry will be a three-year starter at punter, rounding out a formidable special teams unit.

2. Baylor: Corey Coleman led the league in kick returns, and Levi Norwood scored twice off punt returns. The Bears are loaded with potential game-breakers in the return game and welcome back All-Big 12 punter Spencer Roth. If Kyle Peterson proves to be a reliable replacement for departing kicker Aaron Jones, this special teams unit will have no weakness.

[+] EnlargeTyler Lockett
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAlong with being a top-flight wide receiver, Kansas State's Tyler Lockett can also provide big plays in the return game.
3. Kansas State: The Wildcats feature one of the best kickoff return men in the game in Tyler Lockett, who doubles as an All-American WR candidate. Jack Cantele, the younger brother of All-Big 12 K-State kicker Anthony Cantele, only missed two field goal attempts as a sophomore and nailed a 41-yarder as time expired to beat TCU. Defensive tackle Travis Britz also returns after leading the nation with four blocked kicks.

4. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders will feature a lethal one-two punch in the return game in Jakeem Grant and Reginald Davis, who took a kick back for a touchdown in the bowl game. Receiver Jordan Davis also has return experience. Kicker Ryan Bustin returns after garnering honorable mention All-Big 12 honors last year.

5. Oklahoma: The Sooners lose the most explosive return duo in the league in Jalen Saunders and Roy Finch. Sterling Shepard and Alex Ross could be among the players who replace them. Oklahoma boasts the league’s most efficient returning place-kicker in Michael Hunnicutt, who nailed 24 of 27 field goal tries last season. The Sooners have a secret weapon in Nick Hodgson, who led the league in touchback kickoffs last season. Jed Barnett, fifth in the Big 12 in punting average last season, returns as well.

6. Iowa State: The Cyclones had four players make first- or second-team All-Big 12 last season, and departing punter Kirby Van Der Kamp was one of them. Replacing his production won’t be easy, though incoming three-star freshman Colin Downing will try. DeVondrick Nealy, Jarvis West and Aaron Wimberly all had several dynamite moments returning kicks. Cole Netten was 13-of-18 on field goals as a freshman,

7. West Virginia: Nick O'Toole leads the Mountaineers on special teams. The “Boomstache” was 15th nationally in punting last season. The Mountaineers have all their returners back in Wendell Smallwood, Mario Alford and Jordan Thompson, though more big plays are needed from this group -- the Mountaineers ranked last in the league in both punt and kick returns in 2013. Josh Lambert comes back after making 17 of 23 field goals as a freshman. The Mountaineers also enjoy a luxury in Michael Molinari, who can do a little bit of everything.

8. Texas: The Longhorns lose their punter and their kicker in consensus All-American Anthony Fera. That hurts. Nick Jordan, who made nine of 15 field goals in 2012, could reclaim his job. Daje Johnson -- who returned a punt for a TD against Oklahoma -- Duke Thomas, Quandre Diggs, Marcus Johnson, Kendall Sanders and Jaxon Shipley all have experience returning.

9. Kansas: Return men Connor Embree (punts) and JaCorey Shepherd (kicks) both come back. The Jayhawks also return kicker Matthew Wyman, who connected on a game-winning 52-yard field goal to beat Louisiana Tech. The freshman, however, only made two field goals after that and eventually lost that job to departing senior Ron Doherty. Trevor Pardula was third in the Big 12 in punting as a junior and received votes for Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year.

10. Oklahoma State: After enjoying All-Americans Dan Bailey and Quinn Sharp the last few years, the Cowboys were finally mediocre in the kicking game last season. Ben Grogan struggled as a freshman, making just 11 of 18 field goals while missing two critical attempts in the early-season loss at West Virginia. The Cowboys were also last in the league in punting. Oklahoma State signed three-star kicker Zach Sinor with hopes of curing some of those ills. The Cowboys were still dynamic in the return game, but with Justin Gilbert and Josh Stewart both gone, Oklahoma State could lean on juco transfer and track star Tyreek Hill for a jolt on returns.
In the next few weeks leading into signing day it’s a great time to take a position-by-position glance at Oklahoma’s returning roster. This series, called State of the Position, will look at the playmakers, up-and-comers and current commitments or targets at each position for the Sooners as recruiting really heats up during these final weeks before signing day on Feb. 5. On Friday, we take a closer look at the kicking specialists to wrap up the series.

[+] EnlargeMichael Hunnicutt
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsMichael Hunnicutt was close to automatic for the Sooners in 2013.
Starter/contributors: K Michael Hunnicutt (Sr.), K Nick Hodgson (Sr.), P Jed Barnett (Sr.)

Hunnicutt was outstanding. He made 24 of 27 field goals, 47 of 48 extra points and even had a touchdown reception against Oklahoma State. What more can you ask for? Especially since Hunnicutt solidified a position that was in major flux when he arrived on campus.

Hodgson went unnoticed but led the Big 12 in yards per kickoff (63.7), touchbacks (43) and kickoff touchback percentage (62.3 percent). He was a key contributor for an OU’s special teams group that was among the Big 12’s best.

Barnett was average or below average in pretty much every category except punts downed inside the 10-yard line. He put 8 of 65 punts inside the 10 but was ninth in the Big 12 in net punting (35.25 yards per punt) and saw 63.2 percent of his punts returned for five yards or more.

On the cusp: P Jack Steed (So.), K Daniel Schwarz (So.)

Steed is an invited walk-on punter who could take over for Barnett when he leaves if he’s unable to unseat the senior in 2014.

Schwarz was Tulsa’s kicker in 2012 before being dismissed from the program and walking on at OU before the 2013 season.

On the recruiting trail: None

OU could look to add another kicker and punter simply to add competition to the roster but there’s no need to recruit a scholarship kicker unless he’s a guy who can handle at least two of the three duties.

Overall Grade: A-

The combination of Hunnicutt and Hodgson could be the Big 12’s best and that pushes this grade above a B while Barnett is solid but not spectacular. The Sooners have two guys on the roster who can take over kicking duties in the future, making the overall future and present look pretty good in Norman, Okla.

Big 12 games of the year: No. 1

January, 24, 2014
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We’ve been counting down the 10 best games of the year in the Big 12. Finally, we’re down to game No. 1. Once again, Bedlam was the game of the year in the Big 12:

No. 1: Dec. 7 -- Oklahoma 33, Oklahoma State 24

In one of the coldest games either team had ever played in, Oklahoma stunned its Bedlam rival with two touchdowns in the final 19 seconds to pull off the upset.

What happened: Oklahoma State went into the game a double-digit favorite for the first time since Vegas began keeping track. But the Sooners were able to hang around utilizing a variety of unconventional scoring plays and three different quarterbacks.

The Sooners tied the game 7-7 at the end of the first quarter on Jalen Saunders’ 64-yard punt return touchdown. The Sooners tied the game late in the third quarter on a fake field goal, as holder Grant Bothun threw a touchdown pass to Michael Hunnicutt.

Oklahoma State, which struggled to pass the ball in the sub-10 degree temperatures, finally got going in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Clint Chelf completed four consecutive passes of 14, 27, 20 and 23 yards, setting up Desmond Roland’s go-ahead touchdown plunge to put the Cowboys up 24-20.

But Oklahoma State left too much time on the clock. And Blake Bell -- the third quarterback to enter the game for the Sooners -- led them back down the field in the final seconds.

Bell appeared to throw a jump-ball interception to Oklahoma State All-American cornerback Justin Gilbert. But as Gilbert landed on the ground, receiver Lacoltan Bester was able to swipe the ball away to turn the play into an incomplete pass.

Moments later, Bell hit Saunders in the corner of the end zone for a seven-yard, game-winning touchdown pass -- the Sooners’ first and only offensive touchdown of the game.

Oklahoma State’s desperation series of laterals resulted in Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker scoring another touchdown, providing Bedlam with an exclamation point.

Player of the game: Bell was clutch but Oklahoma would have never been in the game without Saunders. His punt return touchdown changed the complexion of the game in the first quarter. Saunders’ 37-yard reverse also set up the fake field goal touchdown, when Oklahoma desperately needed a big play. Then, of course, there was the game-winning touchdown catch, too. It was the second time in his career that Saunders had a punt return touchdown and receiving touchdown in the same game. The other time came in Oklahoma’s overtime victory over the Cowboys in 2012.

Stat of the game: Though he was on point late in the fourth quarter, Chelf completed just 2 of 10 passes on third down. Neither of his completions resulted in a first down, and Oklahoma State’s ineffective third-down passing caused several promising drives to stall out.

Quotable: “The feeling in the locker room is a bad feeling right now.” -- Oklahoma State’s running back Roland, immediately after the loss.

The rest of the list:

Big 12 all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
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The Big 12 had some memorable bowl performances, and some not-so-memorable ones. Below, we honor the memorable ones with the Big 12's all-bowl team:

OFFENSE

QB: Trevor Knight, Oklahoma. Texas Tech’s Davis Webb and Kansas State’s Jake Waters were marvelous, too, but Knight was simply incredible, throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns against the two-time defending national champs.

RB: Malcolm Brown, Texas. Brown did everything he could to keep the Longhorns in the Valero Alamo Bowl, rushing for 130 yards on 26 carries. Unfortunately, he had little help from the rest of the offense.

[+] EnlargeTyler Lockett
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTyler Lockett proved just as much a handful for Michigan as he does Big 12 teams.
RB: John Hubert, Kansas State. In his final game at K-State, Hubert went out with a bang, rushing for 80 yards and a touchdown as the Wildcats rolled Michigan.

WR: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State. The Wolverines became the next team unable to guard Lockett, who had another stellar outing with 10 catches, 116 yards and three touchdowns. Big 12 defensive backs cannot be looking forward to this guy coming back next season.

WR: Jalen Saunders, Oklahoma. Saunders hauled in two of Knight’s touchdown passes, the second a 43-yarder coming off a gorgeous double move that gave OU the lead for good.

TE: Jace Amaro, Texas Tech. Amaro became the NCAA's all-time single season tight end record holder for receptions and receiving yards, reeling in eight catches for 112 yards against the Sun Devils before revealing he would be turning pro.

OT: Bronson Irwin, Oklahoma. Irwin held up remarkably well against Alabama’s mighty front in his first career start at right tackle, as Knight was sacked only once. Irwin, a guard his entire career, had to move outside because of an injury to Tyrus Thompson.

OT: Le'Raven Clark, Texas Tech. Webb attempted 41 passes and wasn’t sacked once. Clark was a big reason.

OG: Cody Whitehair, Kansas State. The Wildcats moved the ball at will against Michigan. Along with Clark, Whitehair is one of the best young returning offensive linemen in the league.

OG: Beau Carpenter, Texas Tech. After missing three straight games with a concussion, Carpenter returned to help shut down Arizona State All-American DT Will Sutton, who basically was a non-factor.

C: Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma. Even with a makeshift offensive line, OU somehow won the battle in the trenches against Alabama. Ikard, an All-American and quarterback of the line, deserves a ton of credit for keeping the line together.

DEFENSE

DE: Geneo Grissom, Oklahoma. Grissom was a man possessed against the Crimson Tide. The former tight end had two sacks and two fumble recoveries, the latter of which he returned for a touchdown to clinch the Sooners’ victory.

DT: Calvin Barnett, Oklahoma State. Despite the loss, Barnett tied a career high with five tackles and one sack and repeatedly found his way into the Missouri backfield.

DT: Dartwan Bush, Texas Tech. The Red Raiders desperately missed Bush late in the regular season. His performance against Arizona State underscored why, as Bush delivered three tackles and a sack and freed up Kerry Hyder to make plays, too.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSooners LB Eric Striker sacked AJ McCarron three times in the Sugar Bowl.
DE: Jimmy Bean, Oklahoma State. Bean had a breakout game in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, with a career-high seven tackles, including three for loss.

LB: Eric Striker, Oklahoma. Not even Alabama could block Striker off the edge. Striker had a monster performance against the Tide with seven tackles and three sacks, with his final sack forcing the game-clinching fumble in the final minute of the fourth quarter.

LB: Will Smith, Texas Tech. The senior had a National University Holiday Bowl-high 14 tackles, as the Red Raiders held Arizona State 17 points below its season average.

LB: Blake Slaughter, Kansas State. One of the better linebackers in the Big 12 all year, Slaughter had another fine game in the desert with seven tackles, including one for loss, as Michigan’s offense was held in check all night.

CB: Aaron Colvin, Oklahoma. The Sooners gave up some big plays in the passing game, but Colvin was the exception. He also had a critical, touchdown-saving tackle in the first quarter that resulted in Alabama having to settle for a field goal.

CB: Demetri Goodson, Baylor. The Bears gave up 52 points, but they might have given up more had Goodson not collected an acrobatic interception inside the Baylor 5-yard line.

S: Dante Barnett, Kansas State. Barnett led the Wildcats with eight tackles, and he delivered the exclamation point against Michigan with a 51-yard interception return in the fourth quarter.

S: Tanner Jacobson, Texas Tech. In his last college game for a while, the walk-on freshman had a very solid performance with seven tackles. Jacobson is leaving the program for a two-year Mormon mission to Bolivia.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma. “Moneycutt” nailed a season-long 47-yard field goal in the second quarter that allowed OU to keep momentum. It was the third-longest field goal of his career.

P: Spencer Roth, Baylor. One of the few bright spots for Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl was its punter, who was busier than he had been all season. Roth averaged almost 44 yards on seven punts, and pinned UCF inside the 20-yard line three times.

Returner: Reginald Davis, Texas Tech. After Arizona State had trimmed Tech’s lead to 27-20 early in the third quarter, Davis answered on the ensuing kickoff with a 90-yard touchdown return down the sideline. The Sun Devils failed to retake the momentum again the rest of the game.

Oklahoma can give the program -- and the Big 12 -- a landmark victory Thursday night over No. 3 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Here are 10 reasons why the Sooners could pull off the upset against the two-time defending national champions:

1. Jalen Saunders’ playmaking: The most versatile playmaker in this game will be wearing OU’s shade of crimson. Saunders is capable of breaking off big plays on receptions, returns and rushes, as Oklahoma State found out in Bedlam. Saunders is the kind of game-breaker capable of carrying an underdog to an upset.

2. Alabama apathy: After playing in the national championship game three of the past four years, playing in the Sugar is a bit of a step down. The Crimson Tide fans seem to be unenthusiastic about this game. Will the players be, too? The Sooners, meanwhile, have everything to play for. There’s no doubt OU will come out fired up.

3. Alabama focus: The Crimson Tide have several underclassmen who could be early entries to the NFL draft. How many of them will be 100 percent focused on this game? The Sooners, conversely, might not have a single player leave early. Their focus should be fully on this game.

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezDon't count out teams coached by Bob Stoops that enter bowl games as underdogs.
4. Sooners thriving as the underdog: OU’s recent record as a heavy favorite has been suspect. But the Sooners thrived late in the season as underdogs. They knocked off Kansas State and Oklahoma State on the road to close out the regular season as underdogs. There’s precedent for Bob Stoops-coached teams playing great in big bowl games as big underdogs, as well. Just ask Florida State, which fell to the Sooners despite being double-digit favorites in the 2000 national championship game.

5. Special teams: The one area that the Sooners hold a decisive edge over Alabama is special teams. Saunders is an all-conference punt returner. Roy Finch leads the Big 12 in kickoff returns. And Michael Hunnicutt is a reliable placekicker, while the Crimson Tide don’t seem to have much confidence in Cade Foster, who missed three field goals in the Auburn game. A big play on special teams could swing this game the way of the Sooners. Which, after the Iron Bowl, is something Alabama fans understand all too well.

6. Eric Striker off the edge: The sophomore linebacker has been virtually unblockable on blitzes this season. Alabama has given up the fifth-fewest sacks in the country this season, so quarterback AJ McCarron is not accustomed to dealing with pressure. If Striker can get into the Alabama backfield, he could wreak havoc.

7. Colvin on Cooper: Alabama sophomore wideout Amari Cooper is one of the most explosive wide receivers in the country. In the Iron Bowl, Cooper gashed Auburn for 178 receiving yards on six catches. When McCarron looks downfield off play-action, Cooper is who he is looking for. Cooper said this week the Sooners didn’t have anyone in their secondary capable of covering him. But the fact is, the Sooners have one of the best cover corners in college football in Aaron Colvin. Colvin has been banged up all season, which has limited his effectiveness. But with the time off, he’s healthier than he’s been all season and is capable of blanketing Cooper, regardless of what Cooper says.

8. Sooner coyness: OU basically knows what Alabama will do and has been able to prepare accordingly. Because the Sooners haven’t revealed whether they’re starting Trevor Knight or Blake Bell at quarterback, the Crimson Tide have basically had to prepare for two different offensive schemes. Time spent working on one scheme is time not spent working on the other. This gives the Sooners some competitive edge.

9. Bama against the zone-read: Alabama had a difficult time slowing down Auburn’s zone-read attack in the Iron Bowl. If the Sooners go with Knight at quarterback, that’s pretty much the offense the Crimson Tide will be facing again. OU won’t have Nick Marshall or Tre Mason in its backfield. But the Tigers gave OU a blueprint on how to move the ball against the Tide.

10. Sign of the times: Before this week, only six bowl underdogs of at least two touchdowns had won outright since 1990. This week alone, Texas Tech and UCF became the seventh and eighth. The Sooners are heavy underdogs. But maybe this is the bowl season of the heavy underdog.

Sooners' report card: Special teams

December, 18, 2013
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Jay Boulware had a solid first season as Oklahoma's special teams coach. The special teams helped win multiple games during OU's march to the Allstate Sugar Bowl yet they weren't a dominant unit that did everything well.

Here is a unit-by-unit report card for the Sooners' special teams:

Placekicking: A. Remember the days when each OU field goal attempt was an adventure? Michael Hunnicutt has put those days in the past. He hit 23 of 26 attempts, including 21 of 22 from inside 40 yards. He also hit 41 of 42 extra point attempts. Hunnicutt’s average attempt came from 33.2 yards, so his long-distance ability wasn’t tested much but his accuracy and ability to be automatic on closer kicks cannot be overlooked. His 23 field goals led the FBS and his 26 field goal attempts was second among FBS kickers.

Punting: C+. Jed Barnett had games where he played a key role in the Sooners winning the field position battle but he didn’t finish among the Big 12 leaders in several of the main punting categories. Barnett averaged 41.64 yards per punt, sixth in the Big 12, and was last in the conference in net punting at 35.17 yards per punt. The junior college transfer did rank No. 3 in the Big 12 in punts inside the 10 yard line (13.6 percent). Barnett wasn’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination but he wasn’t a game-changing weapon either.

Kickoffs: A. Easily the most overlooked contributor on the squad, Nick Hodgson was very good. He led FBS and the Big 12 in yards per kickoff (64.3) while his kickoff touchback percentage (65.6 percent), ranked first in the Big 12 and No. 7 among FBS kickoff specialists. OU decided to focus on simply getting touchbacks and taking opportunities out of the hands of kick returners and Hodgson executed that plan with precision.

Kickoff coverage: C-. The Sooners were bad on kickoff coverage, allowing 23.68 yards per kick return, ranking No. 8 in the Big 12 and No. 106 among FBS teams. Opponents’ average starting position was 26.7 yard line, meaning they had to go, on average, 73.3 yards to score against OU’s defense. Because its kick coverage was subpar, OU was better off going for touchbacks than allowing the opportunity to return a kickoff while trying to pin opponents inside the 25-yard line.

Kickoff return: B. The Sooners averaged 22.76 yards per kickoff return, ranking fourth in the Big 12. Running back Roy Finch was the biggest threat, averaging 27.5 yards per return on 14 returns. The senior returned 28.6 percent of his returns for 30 yards or more. It wasn't a unit that put fear into the heart of opponents but Finch, Trey Franks and Brennan Clay consistently put OU in pretty good position to begin drives.

Punt coverage: F. OU allowed 16.33 yards per punt return, ranking ninth in the Big 12 and No. 117 among FBS teams. Yikes. The Sooners are lucky their horrible punt coverage didn’t cost them a game. It’s an area that must improve in 2014.

Punt return: A+. As bad as OU’s punt coverage was, the punt return game was better. That unit actually turned the momentum of games around, particularly with Jalen Saunders' punt returns for touchdowns against Iowa State and Oklahoma State. Saunders averaged 16.78 yards per punt return, second in the Big 12 and No. 7 in the FBS.

Overall: B. Hodgson, Saunders and Hunnicutt are stars but OU’s coverage units were average or below average. Nonetheless, the Sooners won some games thanks to their special teams.

Big 12 weekend rewind: Week 15

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
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Taking stock of Week 15 in the Big 12:

Team of the week: Baylor was unranked to begin the season and picked to finish fifth in the Big 12. Instead, with a convincing 30-10 victory over Texas, the Bears won 11 games for the first time in school history to capture the program’s first outright conference title in 33 years. Baylor will cap its magical season against Central Florida in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

Disappointment of the week: Oklahoma State had a chance at a second Big 12 title and BCS bowl berth in three years. And all the Cowboys had to do was beat Oklahoma in Stillwater as 10-point favorites. Instead, despite shuffling through three quarterbacks and not scoring an offensive touchdown until 19 seconds left in the game, the Sooners knocked off their instate rival yet again. The Cowboys have lost 10 of 11 to Oklahoma, but given the circumstance and the ending, this one hurt worst of all.

[+] EnlargeJalen Saunders
Brett Deering/Getty ImagesJalen Saunders had another memorable day against Oklahoma State.
Big (offensive) man on campus: Jalen Saunders is to the Cowboys what kryptonite is to Kryptonians. A year after sparking Oklahoma’s Bedlam fourth-quarter comeback with a punt return touchdown, Saunders gashed Oklahoma State again, having a hand in Oklahoma’s first three touchdowns. He returned another punt for a score in the first quarter. He took a double reverse 37 yards to set up the fake field goal touchdown. Then, with 19 seconds remaining, he hauled in the game-winning touchdown from Blake Bell in the corner of the end zone from 7 yards out. Saunders will finish his two-year career in Norman with four Bedlam touchdowns.

Big (defensive) man on campus: Cornerback K.J. Morton returned from an abdominal strain to deliver the exclamation point to Baylor’s season. Morton picked off Texas quarterback Case McCoy twice, returning the second 57 yards in the fourth quarter for an apparent touchdown. The score was nullified on his celebration penalty. But by then, the party had already begun in Waco.

Special teams players of the week: The field goal tandem of Grant Bothun and Michael Hunnicutt converted Bob Stoops’ first successful fake field goal attempt in 11 years. After their drive stalled at the Oklahoma State 8-yard line, the Sooners lined up for a field goal. Instead, Bothun, the holder, took off running with the ball left and threw the ball to Hunnicutt, the kicker. Hunnicutt backed into the end zone before getting belted by two Cowboys, tying the score 17-17.

Play of the week: Cornerback Justin Gilbert appeared to have ended Bedlam with an Oklahoma State victory, as he came down with an apparent interception on a jump ball to Lacoltan Bester. But instead of landing on the turf, Gilbert landed on Bester, who tapped the ball out of Gilbert’s hands at the last moment. Officials ruled it an incompletion, and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy inexplicably didn’t challenge the call. Five plays later, Bell hit Saunders for the game-winning score.

Stat of the week: As Oklahoma State’s head coach, Gundy’s record against Oklahoma is 1-8. Gundy’s record against the rest of the Big 12: 44-22

Quote of the week: “A defining moment for our program and one I think we'll be able to repeat many times." -- Baylor coach Art Briles, after the school’s first Big 12 championship

Big 12 helmet stickers: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
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Recognizing the best of the best from the Big 12 in Week 15:

CB K.J. Morton, Baylor: After sitting out last week’s game against TCU with an abdominal strain, Morton came back big against Texas. He picked off Case McCoy twice, returning one for a touchdown that ended up being called back on a penalty. That fourth-quarter INT, on an errant screen pass, ended up finishing off Texas and securing the Bears’ Big 12 championship and Tostitos Fiesta Bowl bid. Morton also had two pass breakups and three tackles on the day.

K Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma: Hunnicutt was 2-for-2 on field goals and hit all three of his extra-point attempts. But his performance in this Bedlam game won’t be remembered for those makes. It’ll be for the 8-yard touchdown pass he caught from Grant Bothun on a third-quarter trick play that tied the game at 17-17 and helped swing momentum considerably.

QB Blake Bell, Oklahoma: What a comeback and a moment for Bell, whose junior season had highs and lows, but it closes with a remarkable high. With Trevor Knight knocked out of the game, Bell came off the bench as the third-string option and threw for 140 yards on 10-of-16 passing, capped by the 7-yard game-winning touchdown to Jalen Saunders. He ran a near-perfect two-minute drive to knock off a hated rival and perhaps send the Sooners to a BCS bowl. Doesn’t get much better than that.

RB Glasco Martin, Baylor: Bears WR Antwan Goodley put up big numbers too, as usual, but Martin’s contribution was critical in the second half. A Baylor run game that was limited to 62 yards on 19 rushes in the first half finally got rolling late, thanks to the bruising senior. Martin gained 102 yards on 22 carries and sealed the victory with an 18-yard touchdown.

K Ben Grogan, Oklahoma State: I know, I know, how can two kickers earn Helmet Stickers? What about Goodley, Desmond Roland, Jalen Saunders, Eddie Lackey or lots of other deserving candidates? Well let’s talk about Grogan, who achieved as ridiculous a feat on Saturday as we saw in the Big 12 this season: He nailed a 41-yard field goal in the middle of an earthquake. A 4.5-magnitude earthquake, in fact. Even with the loss, it’s an accomplishment he’ll get to talk about it for the rest of his life. And he’ll always have the shaky camera footage to prove it.

Big 12 weekend rewind: Week 6

October, 7, 2013
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Taking stock of Week 6 in the Big 12:

Team of the week: Baylor. This is starting to get ridiculous. Despite the uptick in opponent, the Bears scored more than 70 points for the third consecutive week, becoming the first FBS team to do so since 1930. The offense has overshadowed how well the defense has also been playing. Baylor, which gave up 70 in Morgantown last year, limited West Virginia to just two offensive touchdowns through three quarters. By that point, the Bears led 66-21. Can anyone stop these guys?

Disappointment of the week: West Virginia. Nobody really expected the Mountaineers would go to Waco and win as four-touchdown underdogs. But this was a litmus test for a defense that had been pretty solid through the first month of the season. Well, the West Virginia defense failed the test miserably, giving up a Big 12-record 864 yards of offense. Baylor had four turnovers and committed 100 yards' worth of penalties. And the Bears still scored 73 points.

[+] EnlargeLache Seastrunk
AP Photo/Jose YauBaylor's Lache Seastrunk contributed 172 of Baylor's whopping 468 rushing yards against West Virginia.
Big (offensive) men on campus: Baylor's offensive line. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said afterward he’d never seen a line establish the line of scrimmage the way the Bears did. Up front, Spencer Drango, Cyril Richardson, Stefan Huber, Desmine Hilliard and Kelvin Palmer paved the way for Baylor to rack up 468 yards on the ground against a defensive front that held Oklahoma State running back Jeremy Smith to just 1 yard on 15 carries a week ago. The Bears have been unstoppable so far, in large part because their offensive line has been paving lanes as well as any line in college football.

Big (defensive) men on campus: Shaun Lewis and Jason Verrett. The Oklahoma State linebacker and TCU cornerback showed over the weekend why they’re all-conference-caliber players. Lewis led the Cowboys with eight tackles, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass late in the fourth quarter. Lewis also chased down Kansas State quarterback Daniel Sams with a shoestring tackle in the open field on the Wildcats’ final drive that kept the clock ticking. Verrett, meanwhile, was fabulous in a losing effort at Oklahoma. Verrett had six tackles and two pass breakups, and he basically blanketed any receiver that lined up on his side of the field. TCU's defense dominated the Sooners in the third quarter, which allowed the Horned Frogs to climb back into the game despite a 13-0 halftime deficit.

Special-teams players of the week: Travis Britz and Kip Daily. The Kansas State duo came up with a huge play at Oklahoma State with 2:45 to go in the first half. Britz jumped up and blocked Ben Grogan’s 43-yard field goal attempt, and Daily grabbed the deflection and raced 65 yards for the touchdown that gave the Wildcats a 14-10 lead (Oklahoma State won the game 33-29). Daily is having quite the season. Three weeks ago, he was the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Week after picking off two passes against UMass. Placekickers Michael Hunnicutt and Ryan Bustin get honorable-mention honors here. Hunnicutt set an Oklahoma record with his 49th career field goal. After missing a 32-yard field goal at Kansas, Bustin bounced back to connect on four field goals and six extra points as Texas Tech routed the Jayhawks 54-16.

Play of the week: After getting completely shut down in the second half, the Sooners' offense finally got the play to put TCU away. With OU holding on to a 13-10 lead in the fourth quarter, running back Brennan Clay got a carry to the left and then cut it back right 76 yards for a touchdown to basically put the game away with 4:37 to play. "We set it up the whole day," Clay said. "The [linebackers] were going over the top and the O-line did a great job just pressing the play, and I was fortunate enough to make the cut backdoor and the safety was a little flat-footed. I made a stutter step and just took it to the crib."

Stat of the week: After six weeks, Baylor QB Bryce Petty leads the nation in opponent-adjusted Total QBR, which takes into account the strength of the opposing defenses faced. Petty has a score of 97.7 (0-100 scale, 50 is average). Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is second (96.8) followed by Georgia’s Aaron Murray (95.6).

Quote of the week: “70 points, I guess, isn’t enough.” – Petty, on those who still doubt the Bears' offense

What we learned: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
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Here's what we learned during Oklahoma's 35-21 win over Notre Dame on Saturday.

Blake Bell is a veteran: The Sooners coaches insisted they weren't concerned about the junior quarterback heading into his first-ever road start. Bell showed why against the Irish, looking poised, confident and unfazed by the environment. Bell accounted for 291 yards including 7.73 yards per pass attempt and 4.92 yards per carry. He consistently made the right play without making a big mistake. Look out Bryce Petty, Bell might be trying to take your place as the favorite to be All-Big 12 quarterback this season.

OU is mentally tougher than it was a year ago: There were times last season when OU got hit in the mouth and didn't respond. On Saturday, OU answered again and again when the Fighting Irish tried to gain any type of momentum in the second half. After George Atkinson III's 80-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, OU drove right down the field for a 27-yard Michael Hunnicutt field goal. After Tommy Rees's 30-yard touchdown pass to Troy Niklas, Bell found Sterling Shepard for a 54-yard touchdown pass to answer. The Sooners never really let ND take back the momentum after Corey Nelson's interception for a touchdown early in the game.

The Sooners defense is improved: There's no longer any doubt, OU's defense is much improved in 2013. Defensive ends Charles Tapper and Geneo Grissom combined for 10 tackles, while defensive tackle Jordan Phillips held his own in the middle. And Frank Shannon and Nelson combined for nine tackles and two interceptions from the linebacker spot. Both positions struggled in OU's 30-13 loss to Notre Dame in 2012. More importantly, the Sooners defense is faster, more aggressive, more opportunistic and more versatile than last season. Welcome back, Mike Stoops.

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