True to form, OU continues to lose star-studded players at an alarming rate. Six season-ending injuries so far this year with the latest being Corey Nelson and Jordan Phillips on defense, and OU’s most versatile player on offense, Trey Millard. This continuing saga only makes one wonder why this keeps happening to OU and more importantly does it happen more often at OU than at other places.
Many OU observers will blame Jerry Schmidt, the longtime OU strength and conditioning coach. While not a friend of Schmiddty’s basic training approach to in-season conditioning, I think the reasons may go deeper than that. Granted, the body does tend to break down more quickly whenever the muscles are tired and backing off during the season would probably be a good thing. At the same time giving the longtime strength and conditioning coach too much credit for the plethora of injuries that seem to occur year in and year out may be too simplistic. I suggest that Schmiddty may not be the only culprit here.
A quick look at websites that keep track of college football injuries for betting purposes may serve to enlighten us to this issue. The statfox.com. website underscores that certain teams have suffered an inordinate number of injuries this year and while I cannot attest to a perpetual pattern, one can assume that a pattern does indeed exist. By using the website to identify teams with excessive injury lists and cross-referencing that information with their strength of schedule, a pattern can be identified. Teams that play early season soft schedules and as a result have their way with the opposition tend to fair better than those that play tough early season schedules. The University of Maryland is a great place to start with this theory. The Terps were off to a great start earlier in the year until injures derailed their season. As the ACC got tougher this year so did Maryland’s schedule. Playing three road games in a row did the Terps in as the team has experienced eight season-ending injures. Similar results can be seen with SEC powerhouses Florida and Georgia. The Gators and the Bulldogs are both 4-3 going into their cocktail party and the second half of the season and have suffered eight and six season-ending injuries respectively.
On the other side of the ledger stands the Baylor Bears. Baylor played a ridiculously soft schedule for the first half of the season and as a result the Bears have suffered no significant injuries. While only time will tell how good the Bears really are, there can be no argument that their injury free situation has been a big part of their 7-0 start. Mark Richt at Georgia should sue his AD for lack of support for scheduling the Bulldogs to play Clemson and South Carolina on successive weekends at the beginning of the season, while Art Briles should send his AD a bonus check for the Baylor early season schedule.
Depth or lack thereof plays a key role in this story as well. When Maryland lost its two All-American wide receivers last weekend, their lack of depth created by a shallow recruiting base did them in for the game and for the year. This situation creates a serious dilemma for football programs. Why would any football program play a rugged schedule and run the risk of excessive injuries. Why not play a soft non-conference schedule and take the guaranteed seven to eight wins that comes with that territory? Essentially it comes down to who is in control of scheduling and what is the objective of the program. Coaches prefer record-padding schedules and athletic directors prefer games that will attract game-day fans and/or television revenue. For a team like Maryland located within miles of two pro football teams, playing it easy is not an option. Fans in pro markets will not turn out for Savanna State and William and Mary games.
Sooner fans have come to expect big time football, which means games against teams that play physical football and unfortunately create injuries. The Sooners invariably play one relatively soft game to open up the season before turning up the heat by playing quality opposition. Then, the Sooners schedule the likes of Notre Dame, Florida State and Ohio State as part of the non-conference schedule before ending the death-march stretch by playing the traditional Texas game. This gruesome early season schedule creates a made-for-injury first half to the Sooner season. Invariably, by the second half of the season the Sooners will be playing against the rest of the Big 12 without key players.
If OU were to play small-ball, the likelihood for significant injuries would go down dramatically. While the OU injury list continues to climb, the Cowboys enter the second half of the season virtually injury free. Another check with statfox.com, shows exactly what I mean. The Sooner season-ending injury list has grown to six, while the Cowboys have been injury free since early September. Then again, if OU played OSU’s schedule, no one at the national level would take the program seriously.
The Cowboys have cornered the market on small time football. OSU fans just want to win and for OSU fans the opponent is immaterial. Give Gundy credit, the practice of playing a weak schedule will allow the Cowboys to enter the hardest part of their schedule in great shape. If OSU starters were extended to the final bell in early season matchups, the injury list and their record would be different. Even games against Big 12 bottom feeders K-State, TCU, and Iowa State would likely have found a different outcome. All the more reason for Mike Gundy to push back vigorously against Mike Holder’s attempt to beef up future Cowboy schedules. In the end Gundy will win that fight and in doing so will ensure his legacy with 8 to 10 win seasons. With a watered-down Big 12 to go along with his three power-puffs each year, OSU starts out with a seven-win season to build on before entering the second half of each season.
The Sooners on the other hand realize that the only way to prepare for national championship caliber competition is to play national championship caliber teams. The Oklahoma way will pay off in the long run. When the Sooners win their 8th national championship, these challenging schedules that create injury-ridden times will be better understood and appreciated. There is only one OKLAHOMA and with that name will come major injuries. As Oklahoma continues its quest to enhance recruiting, improved depth will follow. As a result in future years the Sooners will be better suited to avoid major drop offs when starters go down. Until that time the Sooners will continue to struggle whenever a key player is lost. With a couple of top notch-recruiting cycles, the Sooners will have national championship depth to go along with the national championship aspirations of its fans. As Barry Switzer pointed out years ago, Sooner Magic is much more likely to occur when five-star starters are supported by five-star depth.