The fourth-ranked Oklahoma Sooners kick off the 2012 season on Saturday night, as they head to the Lone Star State to battle the Miners of Texas-El Paso in non-conference action.
Oklahoma is clearly the class of the new-look Big 12 Conference this year, as coach Bob Stoops has assembled a top-notch squad on both sides of the ball. The Sooners went 10-3 last year, which included a 31-14 win over Iowa in the Insight Bowl, and while some schools may have viewed that as a positive, in Norman there was only disappointment as the squad once again failed to live up to lofty expectations.
The Sooners, who are playing their first season opener outside the state of Oklahoma in nearly 20 years, haven't lost a season opener on the road since 1968, going 13-0 in such bouts since. OU is 11-2 in openers under Stoops, and this is only the second time in his tenure that the team has opened away from home.
UTEP is probably a middle-of-the-pack team at best in Conference USA this season, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing after the team posted a 5-7 record (2-6 in conference) in 2011. The Miners, under the direction of head coach Mike Price, wound up losing four of their final five games of 2011, and with Oklahoma and Ole Miss as their first two games of this campaign, they could start the year in much the same way they finished the last.
The Miners are 41-48-5 all-time in season openers, but are 5-3 in such contests under Price. They are seeking their third straight season-opening win, and this is their first opener against a FBS school since 2009.
This matchup marks only the third meeting between these two teams, with Oklahoma laying claim to victory in each of the first two (2000, 2002). In those games, the Sooners outscored the Miners by a combined margin of 123-14.
Despite the loss of some key components from last year's offense, most notably WR Ryan Broyles, that generated more than 500 yards and nearly 40 points per game, the Sooners come into this new season banking senior QB Landry Jones even more than they have in the past. Jones completed better than 63 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.
Stoops spoke recently about the work Jones has put 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. Whaley is recovering from a broken ankle suffered last year so it may take him a while to find his groove.
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 OU 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 last year with 84, and Jefferson picked off 4 passes to go with his 74 total stops.
UTEP, which is just 4-47 all-time against ranked foes and has never beaten a team from the Big 12 (0-11), comes into this season hoping to up the production it generated last year when it averaged 26.6 points and 380.5 total yards per game. Senior QB Nick Lamaison threw for 1,718 yards and 12 TDs, but he completed just 58 percent of his passes and was intercepted 10 times. The Miners' top two receivers are back for another go-around, as senior Michael Edwards and sophomore Jordan Leslie combined for 80 receptions, 1,087 yards and 5 TDs in 2011.
Questions surround the Miners' rushing attack, as they lost most of their key personnel in the backfield, leaving sophomore Nathan Jeffery (26 carries, 166 yards, 1 TD) as the top returning rusher.
Senior safety DeShawn Grayson and senior LB Josh Fely highlight the UTEP defense after tallying 67 and 61 tackles, respectively, last season. Junior DE Horace Miller, who led the team with 5 sacks, also returns to what should be a strong defensive line along with junior DT Germard Reed and senior DE Greg Watkins.
The Miners permitted more than 30 ppg last season, and they were particularly lax in defending the run (190 ypg). Marked improvement must be seen across the board if UTEP is to climb up from the dismal national ranking (104th) it posted in total defense a year ago.