Fri Feb 25 04:53pm EST
While Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops was adding a cool million to his bank account this week, his team was picking up three strikes against its offseason momentum as the near-unanimous favorite for for the 2011 national championship. Strike one: The NCAA docked OU a full week's worth of workouts for allegedly keeping too close a watch on this winter's "voluntary" sessions. Strike two: Defensive tackle Stacy McGee, a returning starter in the middle of the line, was pulled over with marijuana and marijuana accessories in his car last weekend, putting his status for doubt for spring practice, at minimum. And today, strike three: Starting cornerback Jamell Fleming, arguably the most productive member of arguably the Big 12's best secondary in 2010, is no longer with the team for unexplained reasons.
Fleming's not a big name, even within the Big 12 – he was passed over for an all-conference nod last year despite easily leading the league in passes defended and tying for the lead in interceptions, including a 56-yard pick-six against UConn in the Fiesta Bowl – but as vital as he was as a fourth-year junior in 2010, the departure of senior safeties Quinton Carter and Jonathan Nelson made Fleming's experience essential in 2011. For a team playing for the highest stakes, the secondary now looks like a bona fide weakness.
That is, if Fleming's absence is permanent; ideally, he'll work out his personal issues in time to resume his position for the season, and the Sooners' high-octane offense will render the defense's flaws irrelevant, anyway, thus relegating a bad week in February to a blip in the desert. (Oregon certainly had a rougher go of it at this time last year, including the loss of its star quarterback, to no apparent effect when the season rolled around. And no would-be contender goes into 2011 with the deck stacked as solidly against it as Ohio State.) At the same time, building a championship lineup can be like surviving a game of Jenga: When your season effectively hinges on a margin of error of zero, you never know which individual piece could be the one that sends it toppling.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.