Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: In the decade and a half that Bob Stoops has been in charge of the football program at the University of Oklahoma, the Sooners have been perennial powers not only in the Big 12, but on the national scene as well.
Last season was no different, as OU jumped out to a 5-0 start. Included in that run was a pair of wins over conference foes West Virginia (16-7) and TCU (20-17). The annual Red River Rivalry clash with Texas resulted in a 36-20 loss, as the Sooners were faced with their first moment of adversity. Wins over Kansas and Texas Tech followed, but an embarrassing 41-12 loss to eventual Big 12 champ Baylor had folks in Norman scratching their heads.
In a testament to the team's resolve, the Sooners bounced back to win their final three games of the regular season, including a 33-24 decision at bitter rival Oklahoma State in the finale, setting up a showdown with Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. OU prevailed in that contest, 45-31, and Stoops spoke recently about the benefits of finishing the season in such a positive manner.
"I think that really did give us a boost in the last week or two of recruiting. And then it also, I think, as much as anything, it inspired our players to really to build on it in the winter in the way we trained, the way we went into spring and we had a fabulous summer."
OFFENSE: Oklahoma's strong suit last season was running the football, as the team averaged a robust 223.9 ypg to rank second in the Big 12 and 18th nationally. The loss of Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch means Stoops will need to rely on another stable of backs, but this is Oklahoma so there is certainly no shortage of gifted guys ready to step up. Sophomores Alex Ross and Keith Ford will likely hear their number called quite often, and OU fans were certainly looking forward to seeing highly-touted recruit Joe Mixon get on the field. Unfortunately, they will likely have to wait another year as he has been suspended for his alleged involvement in a July incident that resulted in an assault charge being filed against him.
Sophomore Trevor Knight cemented his role as the team's starting quarterback after lighting up Alabama in the Sugar Bowl (348 yards, four touchdown passes), but he will need to show consistent effort from one game to the next or Stoops may need to look elsewhere (perhaps Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, pending NCAA ruling). Helping in that regard will be a skilled, if somewhat inexperienced receiving corps, highlighted by the return of junior Sterling Shepard (51 receptions, 603 yards, 7 touchdowns).
The Sooners are hopeful that the NCAA will rule in favor of allowing talented, but troubled Missouri transfer Dorial Green-Beckham to suit up this season. It appears to be a long shot, but if the explosive wideout is able to play immediately the OU offense becomes significantly more dangerous.
Another guy to keep an eye on is former quarterback Blake Bell. At 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, the athletic Bell has moved to tight end where he could be utilized in several different ways.
The offensive line is chock full of experienced big men, and features senior bookends Daryl Williams and Tyrus Thompson.
DEFENSE: The Sooners were an exceptional defensive team last season, allowing just 22.1 points and 350.2 yards per game, the former ranking them second in the Big 12, and the latter first.
The unit returns a slew of starters, although leading tackler Frank Shannon (92) has been suspended for the entire season for his apparent involvement in an off-the-field issue this past spring. Dominique Alexander (80) and Quentin Hayes (75) highlight the eligible returnees, with Alexander and Eric Striker (team-high 6.5 sacks last season) helping form one of the better linebacking corps in the conference. Junior defensive end Charles Tapper (5.5 sacks) is expected to be the anchor along what should be a very good defensive line as well.
The loss of former standouts Gabe Lynn and Aaron Colvin means the secondary could be an area of concern, although seniors Hayes and Julian Wilson will be there to provide veteran leadership. Despite the secondary being a bit suspect, Stoops has done a nice job recruiting and believes his guys will be up to the task.
"We really like some of our young freshmen that just got in. So there's talent there. Those guys, we're just going to see who is the most consistent and making the most plays."
SPECIAL TEAMS: Stoops has little to worry about when it comes to the kicking game, as senior Michael Hunnicutt is nearly automatic when it comes to field goals. He went 24-of-27 last season, and is widely considered one of the top kickers in the country. Senior Jed Barnett is a solid punter, and any of speedy options exists in the return game.
OUTLOOK: Continuing last season's stretch run is the Sooners' goal in 2014, and there is enough talent in all phases of the game for this to be a special year in Norman.
The schedule, while certainly tough, doesn't appear all that daunting in terms of playing one tough game after another. There are periods where it looks as if OU catches a break, although beating the likes of Tennessee, Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma State won't be easy.
The Sooners have made nine BCS bowl game appearances, and are the only team in the nation to appear in all five BCS games (Sugar, Rose, Fiesta, Orange, BCS Championship). If they stay healthy and avoid the devastating regular-season loss that has hurt their national title aspirations in the past, they could be part of the inaugural College Football Playoff as well.