NORMAN, Okla. – Winning sure looked easy at Oklahoma when there was a group of NFL-bound stars scoring points at a record pace and playing for the national championship.
Once those stars were sidelined, there was a dose of reality for the players charged with taking over. Instead of cruising right back to the BCS, the Sooners last year suffered through a five-loss season filled with injuries but also with lessons.
"We had a sense of entitlement going into games on Saturdays," said quarterback Landry Jones, who was called upon to replace 2008 Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford. "Just because we were OU and Oklahoma, we were going to win games, and kind of lost where we came from in hard work and preparation."
Entering their season opener Saturday night against Utah State, the No. 7 Sooners are hoping to right what went wrong from the very start last season.
Along with Bradford getting injured at the end of the first half, Oklahoma played an undisciplined first game of the season in losing 14-13 to BYU. A new offensive line committed penalty after penalty, receivers dropped passes and the defense finally broke down late when it simply couldn't afford to do so.
"If you go out there and see a bunch of guys jumping offsides and grabbing and holding and falling on the ground, which it was last year in the opener, then we haven't made strides," offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said Tuesday. "If you see a cleaner deal, maybe we're making progress. If we keep building and playing that way, maybe we can be a strong team."
Wilson questioned whether tight ends Trent Ratterree and James Hanna had a "sense of urgency" to be ready to play right away since they entered training camp behind a proven superstar in Gresham. But suddenly, when Gresham was hurt just days before the opener, both were thrust into playing roles.
Jones followed in replacing Bradford, and the trend kept going. Due to injuries, no offensive player started every game for the Sooners last season.
Now, any backup on the team should realize what can happen in the blink of an eye.
"It kind of just made us a little hungrier, made us want to work harder and it opened our eyes a little bit," Jones said.
The Sooners don't figure to face the same sort of challenge in this year's opener, considering that this time they're much healthier, facing an unranked opponent and doing so on a home field where they've won 30 straight games. But regardless of who's on the other sideline, they want to be performing at a much higher level coming out of the gate.
"Everyone wants to talk about the other team, and for us it's really about us," coach Bob Stoops said. "It's really focusing on how well can we play. How well can we execute? Will we take care of the football and be responsible with the ball? Will we remain penalty-free and do the things to execute cleanly and to play as well as we're able to play?"
They haven't played any games to prove it yet, but the Sooners are encouraged by the body language, attitudes and work ethic shown so far in practice.
"Being here at Oklahoma, we're known as being champions and stuff like that, and last year we had kind of a disappointing season as far as to what standards we wanted to meet," Jones said.
"We couldn't just go through the motions in practice and stuff like that and show up on Saturday and win games. We actually have to work for stuff and we have prepare like champions if we're going to be called champions."