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With playoff hopes all but gone, Oklahoma seeks direction

This isn't the first season under Bob Stoops that Oklahoma has held national championship aspirations only to see them dwindle away during the first half.

In 2005, the Sooners opened in the top 10 of the polls, only to get knocked off by TCU in the opener.

In 2006, Oklahoma dropped games to Oregon and Texas by the second weekend of October.

In 2010, the Sooners debuted at No. 1 in the BCS rankings only to be upset by Missouri later in the week.

And in 2014, fresh off its Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, Oklahoma lost two of its first three conference games.

Two of those teams got off the mat to win the Big 12. One rallied to win six of its final seven games. The other, well, spiraled.

Once again, these Sooners find themselves in a similar spot. After advancing there last year, Oklahoma was a trendy pick to get back to the playoff this season. But following losses to Houston and Ohio State, the Sooners have already been all but crossed off the playoff sheet.

With the playoff no longer reasonably attainable, the only question now is, which way will these Sooners go?

The way of 2005, 2006 and 2010, when Oklahoma dramatically improved to salvage its seasons? Or the way of 2014, when the Sooners collapsed and ended the year with a 40-6 loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl?

"As much as anything, they just had a determined mindset to improve," Stoops said, hinting at the 2005, 2006 and 2010 teams. "Sometimes you're not as far off as people want to project you are. But you have to do your job to improve and be as good as we can be and give ourselves the opportunity to win the Big 12 or have that great year."

The Sooners certainly will have every opportunity to win the Big 12, beginning this weekend with a key tilt at TCU, which was picked in the preseason to finish second in the conference. But that will also require a turnaround in several areas that have hampered Oklahoma so far.

The Sooners have to rediscover their identity offensively, patch up the glaring weak spot at cornerback and get their once Heisman-hopeful quarterback to be much sharper than he has been through the first month.

"I just need to kind of cut it loose. Go out there and play like I used to," said Baker Mayfield, who ranks just fifth in the Big 12 in completion percentage and fourth in QBR. "To where you get to a point where you're so comfortable, you don't have to think about it. You just do it. That's my mindset right now, getting the ball out of my hands, going out there and playing fast and getting our tempo up."

But play on the field won't be the only key. Immediately after the Ohio State loss, Stoops acknowledged the leadership within the team wasn't where it needed to be.

Paul Thompson, who was a quarterback/wide receiver on the 2005 and 2006 Sooners teams, said leadership will be paramount as Oklahoma attempts to refocus its preseason goals.

"You need guys to rally around," he said. "What we had were guys with a lot of heart. We looked at the critics and used that as motivation."

In 2005, the Sooners had little chance of winning the Big 12, with Vince Young quarterbacking Texas to the national championship that season. But that Oklahoma team rebounded from the blowout defeat to Texas to run the table, expect for a loss at Texas Tech that ended with a series of controversial calls. The Sooners capped the year by defeating sixth-ranked Oregon in the Holiday Bowl.

"You always have something to play for, even pride alone," Thompson said. "When you look at this year's, there's still a lot out there for them. The pride factor, winning the Big 12, getting into a [New Year's Six] game, finishing the season strong. They can still go out on a high note, even though those tough losses cancelled out their national championship hopes. There are big things this team can still rally around."

With the playoff having been taken off the table, the Sooners have had the off week to contemplate where they go from here. Will they nose-dive into the abyss? Or rally around the big things still out there?

"It's all about the improvement in the season," Stoops said. "The better teams do that as you go through the year."