Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Oklahoma won its first six games of the 2011 campaign, all by double figures, and that included a 3-0 start to Big 12 Conference play. The signature win during that streak was of course a 55-17 shellacking of bitter rival Texas, but as has been customary over the last several years, a surprising loss wound up derailing the Sooners' national championship aspirations as they wound up on the short end of a 41-38 final versus Texas Tech in late October.
Head coach Bob Stoops would rally his team to post another pair of double-digit wins over Kansas State and Texas A&M, but losses to Baylor and in-state rival Oklahoma State over their final three games cost the Sooners the Big 12 title as well, and they were relegated to the Insight Bowl where they battled Big Ten Conference foe Iowa.
OU topped the Hawkeyes, 31-14, to finish with a 10-3 record, but there was certainly an air of disappointment in Norman as the Sooners had failed once again to live up to rather lofty expectations.
OFFENSE: Despite the loss of some key components from last year's offense, most notably WR Ryan Broyles, that generated 512.3 yards and 39.5 points per game, the Sooners come into the 2012 season banking on the fact that their quarterback, senior Landry Jones, is going to be the one constant on which they can almost always rely. Jones completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 4,463 yards, 29 TDs and 15 INTs in '11, and he will look for junior WR Kenny Stills (61 receptions, 849 yards, 8 TDs) more often than not this year as he is clearly the team's go-to guy down the field. Others to keep an eye on include junior Courtney Gardner and highly-touted freshman Trey Metoyer.
There are a few other rookie pass catchers who could develop down the road, and an experienced offensive line should provide a stable environment for Jones to find his man on a consistent basis.
Stoops spoke recently about the work Jones is putting in to assure himself of a solid senior season.
"I think all quarterbacks at this age are making improvements if they're working hard. And Landry is like that, improving his footwork, always building your body, training to be stronger, a little quicker, get the ball out a little better. And Landry works as hard as anybody we've had."
The OU run game boasts the return of senior Dominique Whaley and junior Roy Finch, the two combining for 1,232 yards and 12 TDs a year ago. Also expected to see some action when the team gets down close to the goal line is 6-foot-6, 254-pound backup QB Blake Bell, who scored 13 times on the ground last season. Whaley is recovering from a broken ankle suffered last year so it may take him some time to get into a groove.
DEFENSE: After an eight-year stint as the head coach at Arizona, Mike Stoops is back to run the defense for his brother's team. Mike ran the Oklahoma defense previously from 1999-2003, and his units gave up an average of 15.5 ppg during that span. In the years since, the Sooners have allowed 20.1 ppg, and they are coming off a year in which they permitted 22.1 ppg.
Bob Stoops is obviously happy to have his brother back in the fold. "I'm excited to have Mike back for a number of reasons, not only personally, but professionally. When we've worked together, it's been pretty positive."
Pressure up front will be paramount to any success the OU defense has this season, and finding a way to come close to the 40 sacks the unit logged a year ago won't be easy. The loss of some all-conference talent at the point of attack means guys like senior DTs Casey Walker and Jamarkus McFarland will need to establish themselves early on, and the line as a whole, while rich in experience, appears on the surface to lack that one guy capable of wreaking havoc on nearly every snap.
Junior LB Tom Wort (71 tackles, 2 INTs) is the key in the middle, but the linebacking corps in general lacks identifiable star power, at least at the outset.
Despite their issues last season (241.5 ypg, 18 TDs allowed), the secondary should be an area of strength as back for another go are seniors Deontre Hurst and Javon Harris, and juniors Aaron Colvin and Tony Jefferson. Colvin tied for the team lead in tackles in '11 with 84, and Jefferson picked off 4 passes to go with his 74 total stops.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Oklahoma is fortunate to have two of the best special teams performers in the Big 12 on its roster, as senior punter Tress Way has a big leg and the ability to pin the opposition deep thanks to some nifty directional kicking, while sophomore kicker Michael Hunnicutt is hoping to pick up where he left off last year when he made a school-record 22 field goals.
OUTLOOK: The 2012 season opens with a couple of tune-ups against the likes of UTEP and Florida A&M, but the conference lidlifter against Kansas State will not be easy. An Oct. 27 home game against Notre Dame could be interesting if the Fighting Irish are playing well at that point, and a Nov. 17 trip to Big 12 newcomer West Virginia could present Stoops' troops with all kinds of problems. With a bout against Baylor the week prior, the Sooners close out the regular season on a murderous stretch that will also include dates with Oklahoma State and the league's other new addition in TCU.
The talent is there for the Sooners to run the table and make Jones look like a genius for passing up the NFL this past spring for one more run at college football immortality. Unfortunately, the Sooners' track record of late suggests they will likely lose at least one game they probably shouldn't, and maybe a couple more they probably should.