By Wendell Barnhouse
NORMAN, Okla. – If you want to judge a team's potential on a coach's mood, then the idea of Oklahoma making a strong run at the 2014 national championship makes a lot of sense.
Bob Stoops, going into his 16th season, has been equal parts happy and chippy. At last month's Big 12 Conference media days, he photobombed a television interview with his wife and offered to buy smoothies for the media.
A day later, during a visit to ESPN's studios for a series of interviews, Stoops continued to counter comments made by Alabama coach Nick Saban about the Crimson Tide's Sugar Bowl loss to the Sooners.
Asked if he was concerned about hard feelings from Southeastern Conference country, Stoops said, "Get over it … and again, where was I lyin'?"
Yeah … Stoops thinks his team has what it takes. The predictors agree. OU is ranked in the top five in the preseason polls and picked to win the Big 12 title.
"It's become commonplace for us," Stoops said of the expectations. "That's OK. Some years, it's worked out really well, some years it hasn't."
Based on the evidence currently available, Oklahoma has talent and momentum. The Sooners return seven starters on offense and nine on defense. A last-minute rally to win at Oklahoma State led to a surprising Sugar Bowl victory over the defending national champions.
Sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight was outstanding in that game and while there are holes to fill at wide receiver, running back and the offensive line, OU's offense is again expected to be explosive.
In Stoops' second season in Norman, the Sooners won the national championship by smothering a high-powered Florida State offense and Heisman Trophy quarterback Chris Weinke. As Big 12 offenses have evolved into scoring machines, OU's defense has at times struggled. However, with Stoops' brother Mike in his third season after returning as coordinator, the Sooners appear to have a defense capable of making life tougher on opposing offenses.
In the Sugar Bowl, Oklahoma forced five turnovers and the Sooners' pass rush – which includes junior linebacker Eric Striker, one of the Big 12's most versatile defenders – hounded and harassed Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron.
The game with the Crimson Tide not only displayed the Sooners' defensive talent but how they had adapted and learned a new 3-4 scheme. A year ago at this time, Mike Stoops' crew was still in the learning stages.
"Right now the defense is light years ahead of where we were a year ago," Bob Stoops said. And considering OU led the Big 12 in total defense last season, that's another indication at the Sooners' coach has reason to feel confident.
In particular, the defensive line could wreak havoc. Charles Tapper, Jordan Phillips, Geneo Grissom and Chuka Ndulue are starters with experience and talent.
"It all starts with the big guys," Ndulue said. "If we're not being dominant and getting driven into the linebackers, it's going to be a long day for us. We just preach that it all starts up front."
"If we're dominating and playing on their side of the line of scrimmage, we can do something great."
Coach: Bob Stoops, 16th season at Oklahoma
2013: 11-2 overall, 7-2 in Big 12.
Bowl: Defeated Alabama 45-31 in Sugar Bowl.
Returning starters: 7 on offense, 9 on defense.
Key players: Soph. QB Trevor Knight, senior TE Blake Bell, junior WR Sterling Shepard, senior OT Daryl Williams, junior LB Eric Striker, junior DE Charles Tapper, soph. LB Dominique Alexander, junior WR Duron Neal, senior DB Julian Wilson, senior K Michael Hunnicutt.
Three Points To Ponder
1. For the first time in Bob Stoops' 16 seasons, Oklahoma goes into a season without a junior or senior running back. Last season's top three rushers – Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch – exhausted their eligibility. Plus, Trey Millard, a Swiss army knife fullback who was injured midway through the season, has graduated. Sophomore Keith Ford, who had 23 carries last season but had issues with fumbling, is the most experienced returning running back.
2. Junior Sterling Shepard (51 receptions, 603 yards, seven touchdowns) is the top returning receiver. Jalen Saunders and Lecoltan Bester combined for 88 catches and 10 touchdowns but both must be replaced. Junior Duron Neal could step into a starting role. The Sooners also hope the receiving corps gets a boost from senior Blake Bell. The former quarterback has moved to tight end and has been praised for how he has adapted to the new position.
3. The offensive line needs to replace three starters. Senior tackle Daryl Williams is the leader of a group that has talent and depth but how the unit jells will be worth monitoring. Junior Ty Darlington steps in at center for Gabe Ikard, a four-year starter who was an acknowledged leader of the line and the team.
Sophomore linebacker Dominique Alexander, the Big 12 defensive freshman of the year, says he would give himself a "C- or a D" grade for last season:
"I'm a hard critic of myself. When we were practicing in the spring, I felt like a totally different player than I was last year. I've played a lot more and I have experience. I've worked really hard this offseason and I've seen it pay off. "Sometimes I watch myself and think, I'd never do that now I see things and I'm like, 'What am I doing?' I watched the Alabama game on TV and I'd never do that now."
Numbers To Note
Oklahoma's victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl was the Sooners' 28th bowl victory in 47 appearances. The Sooners' .606 winning percentage is third-best in college football. … Last season OU converted 21 of 25 turnovers it forced into points. … The Sooners' coaching staff has a cumulative 219 years of experience. … Five times in the last seven seasons Oklahoma has started the season ranked among the nation's top four teams. … The Sooners' rushing production increased from 161 yards per game in 2012 to 224 per game last season; however, 70 percent of that yardage production needs to be replaced.
|Aug. 30||Louisiana Tech|
|Sept. 6||at Tulsa|
|Sept. 20||at West Virginia*|
|Oct. 4||at TCU*|
|Oct. 11||Texas* (Cotton Bowl Stadium, Dallas)|
|Oct. 18||Kansas State*|
|Nov. 1||at Iowa State*|
|Nov. 15||at Texas Tech*|
|Dec. 6||Oklahoma State*|
* - Big 12 Conference game.