-- KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Say this for Bob Stoops and his Oklahoma football team: They seem to be at their best when discounted or disrespected, or even when they've been dismissed as dead in the water in one of the most hostile road environments you can imagine.
Their 31-24 escape in two overtimes Saturday against Tennessee in an orange-and-white checkerboarded, ear-splitting Neyland Stadium was a reminder of what Oklahoma players and coaches have been preaching ever since the bitter end of last season's collapse that left the Sooners at 8-5 after a 4-0 start.
This is a different Oklahoma, a feistier, more resilient Oklahoma, and an Oklahoma that takes it personally that it has supposedly been relegated to second-class citizenship in the new world order of the Big 12.
The start of OU's Big 12 season is still more than two weeks away, but the Sooners served notice on Rocky Top last weekend that they're not going to toil aimlessly in the shadow of Baylor and TCU this season.
Not this Oklahoma team, anyway, one that's been seething ever since last season ended.
"We were embarrassed last year," said senior defensive end Eric Striker, Oklahoma's emotional leader.
"We didn't like the way we finished last year. We're doing everything as leaders and players to bring change around here with this team. You've got to be pissed off every game, every time you step up on that field."
But that's just part of the story. Baker Mayfield, who started his career as a walk-on quarterback at Texas Tech and then sat out last season after transferring to Oklahoma, won the starting job in the preseason. It hasn't taken him long to win over his teammates, either, with the way he shakes tacklers, scraps for every inch, and plays with the kind of fight that was front and center Saturday in Knoxville when he accounted for all four of the Sooners' touchdowns in the fourth quarter and overtime periods.
The 6-foot-1, 209-pound Mayfield looked like a pogo stick bouncing off Tennessee defenders and took some big shots. But he also kept coming up big.
"It's a huge relief for me, knowing they're always going to have my back and this team is never going to give up on each other," Mayfield said. "Not every win is going to be pretty. We'll take an ugly one."
New offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, brought in by Stoops to shake things up and run his wide-open version of the Air Raid attack, noticed the team's attitude right away.
"We've got a team with a chip on their shoulder," he said. "I saw that from the second I came into the program, that there was an edge, and I don't know if people would say it was missing or not, but I could feel the edge when I walked in the door. Baker has that. Our other quarterbacks have that. Our offense does. Our defense does.
"This [the win over Tennessee] was just guts. That's all it was, straight guts."
Junior cornerback Zack Sanchez, whose interception in the second overtime sealed the game for the Sooners, echoed Striker when describing the team's mentality.
"We've been pissed off for nine months, all of us ... the coaches, the players, everybody," Sanchez said. "We've been talked about for nine months and finally get a chance to go out and show who we are. We're not near where we want to be and not satisfied. Our goal's not to be 2-0. We have a lot of things to improve on, but there's a lot of momentum rolling into the season."
The way the Sooners won Saturday night may pay the biggest dividends down the road. The offense, for the second straight week, got off to a slow start, and Oklahoma found itself down 17-3 entering the fourth quarter. Unless you were there, it's impossible to know how loud and how crazy that stadium was. But there was no panic on the Oklahoma sideline, nor was there any division between the offense and defense.
This time, the defense kept the Sooners in the game, which wasn't the case when things went south a year ago. They lost three of their last five games and gave up a total of 126 points in those three losses.
"We've been through a lot the last nine months, and guys just kind of hung in there," Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. "We're going to have a different resolve about us this year. That was good to see, a great start, to come back and keep our team in the game. And when they got the rhythm offensively, it finally started to come together.
"We played as a team, and to be successful, you have to have balance and be good on both sides of the ball. You saw throughout the course of the game that one helped each other. It will be a different case on down the line. I've coached too long to know that we may win a game 43-40. That's just how the business goes."
As fate would have it, a couple of the Oklahoma players, Striker included, allowed the emotion of the comeback win to boil over. Striker used profanity while taunting the Tennessee fans and celebrating after the win, while safety Hatari Byrd was captured on video giving Tennessee fans the middle finger as he left the field.
Both players have since apologized.
But don't expect any apologies coming out of Norman for the way this team is going about its business on the field this season.
"It's the way you have to play this game -- angry and having each other's backs no matter what," Sanchez said. "That's what you've got to have, and this team has it."