The SEC has been long been defined by the smashmouth brand of football that permeates almost every program in the conference.
Steve Spurrier's Florida teams were the first to fling the ball all over the field in the 1990s, but until recently, most teams within the conference built their offense around a powerful ground attack and efficient passing game.
Now, things are changing, thanks to offensive innovation and the presence of Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Auburn's Gus Malzahn in particular. This week, things are even more different than the past as Tennessee comes to Norman as the team most likely to be pushed around by a smashmouth style.
Oklahoma has made it a goal to run the ball effectively this year and in the process, be a more physical team up front. So far through two games the Sooners are averaging 222 yards per game on the ground and an impressive 6.3 yards per carry. Having a veteran offensive line can't ever be emphasized enough.
“They're doing a great job,” running back Keith Ford said of the offensive line. “They're the backbone of the offense and everything we do is because of them. From the pass protection to the blocking, we really just work together as a whole.”
The offensive line's battle against the defensive line of Tennessee is a positional matchup where the Sooners have a huge advantage on paper. Tennessee's defensive line starters average 6-foot-3, 272.5 pounds, with the largest man being nose tackle Danny O'Brien, who checks in at 6-foot-2, 286 pounds.
Incredibly, that's the size of the Sooners' smallest starter on the offensive line, center Ty Darlington. The Sooners are massive up front, averaging 6-foot-4.5 and 326 pounds. It's a titanic mismatch the Sooners should be able to take advantage of on Saturday, a week after opening big holes for the OU running backs against Tulsa.
“It feels good,” tackle Daryl Williams said about seeing the backs run through gaping holes. “I just watched the tape the night of and it just feels good knowing we can open up those big holes for the running back and do spectacular. Seeing Alex Ross run for an 82-yard touchdown, that's a great feeling.”
The group has come a long way from the one that averaged just 161 yards rushing in 2012. One of the biggest reasons is how much depth the Sooners have up front—not just depth, but experienced depth.
“Yeah, they're a strong unit,” OU coach Bob Stoops said. “These guys right now are really quality players and have played a lot. They're all experienced, they've got the size and they're playing together really well.”
The other half of the physical equation has been the trio of running backs, all getting their first taste of being a featured back for the Sooners. They all complement each other very well, coming together to form one, three-headed monster for opposing defenses to deal with.
“I think Keith (Ford) has done a great job on normal downs just getting extra yards,” OU quarterback Trevor Knight said. “Yards after contact have been huge for him, diving forward for four more. That keeps the chains moving and you have to have guys like that to keep the chains moving. Then you throw in Alex Ross and his big play threat and Samaje Perine and the short yardage game. That's a group of three running backs that have it all covered.”
Not only do they complement each other well, but having three running backs all capable of being a feature back on their allows the Sooners to keep the running game fresh and running smoothly.
“I think more than anything the advantage of being able to throw fresh people at a defense to be able to continue to run the football with fresh legs,” Stoops said. “Had Alex (Ross) carried the ball maybe 20 times already the other night, he may not have busted that (his 82-yard touchdown) all the way. It's just, you're able to have a fresh set of legs coming at the defense all the time and they all have power and size to them to go with it.”
Physical football, once the undisputed calling card of the SEC, has become the preferred method for the Sooners. Saturday, they'll try to out-physical one of those SEC teams, but the opponent doesn't really matter. Oklahoma is just establishing an identity.
“We're going to play our game and our game is physical,” Ford said. “It's just another game; whether it's Tennessee or La. Tech or any other opponent, you have to respect them. We're a physical team and we just have to keep doing what we're doing and play physical.”