What life without Saunders could mean

NORMAN, Okla. -- Going into the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, the Sooners lost Reggie Smith. Then Lendy Holmes. And finally DeMarcus Granger. By the time the bowl game finally came around, the complexion of the Oklahoma defense had completely changed, and West Virginia waxed the Sooners, 48-28.

As the Sooners get ready to take on Texas A&M in the sold-out AT&T Cotton Bowl, the complexion of their offense might have suffered a blow bigger than the one to the ’07 defense. This weekend, star slot receiver Jalen Saunders was arrested and charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana. In all likelihood, Saunders will be suspended for the Cotton Bowl.

Not until Saunders was cleared for Texas week did the OU offense begin to realize its vast potential. The Sooners had struggled to find their identity through the first month of the season, which included the 24-19 loss to Kansas State. Once Saunders was cleared, the Sooners opted to go with a four-wide attack with Saunders in the slot and Kenny Stills on the outside, and the offense immediately took off.

With Saunders on the field, the Sooners scored 63, 52, 13, 35, 42, 50, 51 and 24 points, respectively. In the 13-point game against Notre Dame, Saunders supplied the main ammunition, hauling in 15 receptions for 181 yards.

He had 100-yard outings in OU’s final three games, including a seven-catch, 108-yard performance Saturday at TCU, which included the Sooners’ play of the day -- a 24-yard touchdown grab across the middle on third-and-long just before halftime.

But if Saunders is suspended, not only will Landry Jones lose one of his favorite targets, the Sooners might have to scrap the identity they leaned on for points late in the season. At the least, they’ll have to alter it.

OU basically has two options. One, they can stick with the four-wide attack and lean on one of the backups -- either Trey Metoyer or Durron Neal. The problem with that is Metoyer and Neal have both played outside receiver this season. If the Sooners stick with the four-side set, they’ll have to move Stills back to the inside. Stills is capable there, but he’s been more effective on the outside this season.

Also, without a proven playmaker like Saunders on the same side, the Aggies will be able to place more attention on Stills. The Horned Frogs tried that, and paid a price as Saunders gashed them. Will Metoyer or Neal be able to do the same?

The Sooners could also opt away from the four-wide set and lean more heavily on a two-back set and Trey Millard, which is not a bad thing. OU relied on this set at Texas Tech and it was effective, swinging Millard back and forth from fullback to tight end to leverage the Red Raiders. The Sooners have proved they can score out of this set.

Problem is, the four-wide formation still has been OU’s best weapon this season. Without Saunders, it loses some major firepower. And that could be a problem for the Sooners in Arlington, Texas.