The Oklahoma Sooner have garnered the top spot opener against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane.
The Sooners went just 8-5 in 2009, a down year by the standards in Norman, but Bob Stoops' team found its way back to the nation's elite in 2010, winning 12 games, capturing its seventh Big 12 title since 2000, earning a BCS Bowl bid and actually winning one with a blowout of UConn (48-20) in the Fiesta Bowl, ending a streak of five straight losses in BCS Bowl games.
With All-American talent returning on both sides of the football, the Sooners are poised for another big season in 2011, one that could land them in the National Championship Game in New Orleans when all is said and done.
The Golden Hurricane will present a tough challenge right out of the gate. Todd Graham parlayed a 10-3 season last year into a new job at Pittsburgh, leaving the reins of a strong Tulsa squad to Bill Blankenship. There is plenty to work with in Tulsa, as the team seeks the Conference USA crown.
The Sooners hold a 16-7-1 advantage in the all-time series with Tulsa and have won each of the last five meetings, including a 45-0 rout in the last matchup in 2009.
It would be difficult to find a better quarterback in C-USA than G.J. Kinne last season, as the junior completed 60 percent of his passes, for 3,650 yards and 31 touchdowns. The Texas transfer also led his team in rushing with 561 yards and seven more scores.
Blankenship is extremely high on his signal-caller.
"The media in Tulsa have given some attention the fact that the state of Oklahoma has some pretty good quarterbacks in it," said Blankenship. "We believe that the best one is not in the Big 12, we think he's probably in Conference USA."
While Kinne's return is a welcome sign for Blankenship, the loss of leading receiver Damaris Johnson could be devastating. The 5-7, 170-pound Johnson was not only second in rushing with 560 yards in 2010, he proved to be Kinne's most reliable target after catching 57 balls for 872 yards in 2010. Johnson has led the country in all-purpose yards the last two years and holds the NCAA record for all-purpose yards (7,796) and kickoff return yards (3,417). He is currently suspended indefinitely for an off-the-field incident and his return is unknown at this time. In his absence, players like Thomas Roberson and Ricky Johnson will need to step up and try to fill the void.
Sophomore RB Trey Watts (5-11, 201) logged four starts last year, sophomore Ja'Terian Douglas (5-11 180) has one start and a 7.8 yard average, and junior Willie Carter (6-2, 218) started four and had an 8.1 yard average at h-back, so while the backfield is young, there is plenty of talent and gametime experience onboard.
All three backs should benefit behind a veteran offensive line that returns all five starters, including Second Team All-Conference USA center Trent Dupy. The line has depth with transfers Kody Cooke (Oklahoma) and Matt Romine (Notre Dame) at left tackle, and Joe King (Texas Tech) at right tackle.
Tulsa's new defensive coordinator Brent Guy is implementing a 4-3 scheme, and will have seven starters back from last year's squad, although that unit allowed a generous 451 yards per game.
Up front there is veteran leaders in all league senior ends Tyrunn Walker (6-3, 273) and Cory Dorris (6-4, 275), who combined for 17.5 tackles for loss in 2010. Junior Derrick Jackson (6-2, 293) is the team's most experienced tackle, and he should be complemented inside by Daeshon Bufford (6-3, 272), Durrell Finch and Rashard Robinson.
Tulsa's linebackers are active, starting with senior Curnelius Arnick. The 6-1, 230-pound veteran posted 116 tackles and recorded four INTs, two that were returned for touchdowns. Sophomore Shawn Jackson is back after logging 10 starts and 88 stops last season, earning freshman All-America honors. DeAundre Brown (5-11, 211) led the team in tackles in 2009 as a starting safety, but redshirted last season. He will factor into the linebacking corps this season.
Three members of the secondary are back for a defense that led the country in interceptions last season (24). Dexter McCoil (6-4, 222) should cause problems for C-USA offenses again this year after registering 56 tackles and six interceptions a year ago. Freshman All-American Marcos Nelson is also a huge talent, while veteran corner John Flanders has plenty of big game experience having started 22 games in his career.
The Oklahoma offense can be balanced when need be but with All-American talent under center and on the outside, the preferred mode of travel is via the pass. Junior QB Landry Jones is a serious Heisman contender this season and has had two monster campaigns in Norman thus far. There was certainly no sophomore slump in 2010, completing over 65 percent of his passes, for 4,718 yards and 38 TDs. Jones played particularly well down the stretch and into the postseason, giving Stoops plenty of confidence with his star quarterback heading into 2011.
"He's just become a really strong leader. And now he's more comfortable. And I think anyone, the quarterback needs to be a leader. If he hasn't played and earned the respect by performance and meeting challenges and then doesn't have the confidence yet, it's hard to be that guy. Well, he has all of that now. And so he's a true, true leader on this team. And a special one."
It certainly helps having one of the nation's most explosive receivers in Ryan Broyles. As a junior, Broyles finished second in the nation with 131 receptions, for 1,622 yards (fourth nationally) and 14 TDs, earning First-Team All-American honors. Sophomore Kenny Stills is more than suitable on the other side. The 6-0, 181-pounder was a Freshman All-American in 2010, hauling in 61 balls, for 786 yards and five TDs.
Tailback DeMarco Murray (1,214 yards and 15 TDs) has moved on and there isn't a sure thing in terms of his replacement, although Stoops is extremely high on youngsters Brennan Clay (5-11, 194) and Jonathan Miller (6-0, 199). Miller redshirted in 2010. Four starters return up front, so both the running game and passing attack will benefit from the continuity along the offensive line.
The Oklahoma defense loses three of its top four tacklers from a year ago, including top pass rusher Jeremy Beal (8.5 sacks). In addition, this year's squad will be playing with heavy hearts following the unexpected death of starting MLB Austin Box in May.
"There's no words that truly can describe how you hurt and how the players hurt," said Stoops. "Austin was a great, great spirit in the locker room. Everybody -- he was a friend to everybody, and he's one of those special characters, a young person that everybody loved to see. So you miss that. And it doesn't go away. So, again, there's no really proper way to describe it. So we're still working through it. And, again, I think that the players have really leaned on each other. And the leaders are guys that have -- I'm sure will help pull us through it."
The Sooners will rely heavily on that veteran group of guys, although the top guy, All-American candidate and Butkus Award nominee Travis Lewis, will miss the start of the season due to a broken bone in his foot which he suffered in August camp. The 6-2, 235-pound senior linebacker is one of the nation's premier playmakers and is coming off a junior season in which he led the Sooners in tackles (109). His return will certainly be needed down the stretch in the Big 12.
Up front, senior end Frank Alexander (39 tackles, 13 TFLs, seven sacks) will be called upon to provide pressure on opposing QBs. The secondary will be highlighted by senior CB Jamell Fleming (71 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 14 PBUs, five INTs).