No. 7 Oklahoma opens with new coach, high hopes

For the first time since 1998, Oklahoma will start a season with someone other than Bob Stoops at the helm.

Instead, it'll be Lincoln Riley making his head coaching debut Saturday when the No. 7 Sooners host UTEP at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., after Stoops' abrupt June retirement announcement.

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield grew up around Bob Stoops and the Sooners, often making the trip from Austin, Texas, to attend games in Norman as a boy.

So it'll be strange for Mayfield to play for another head coach.

But at the same time, he has been closer to no one on the coaching staff than he has been to Riley.

Mayfield beat out Trevor Knight for the starting job in 2015, Riley's first season as the Sooners' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

Now just 33, Riley is thrust not only into a new role as a head coach but doing it at a program with sky-high expectations with Mayfield and the entire offensive line returning intact from last year's Big 12 championship team.

"He knows why he's here and he's worked very hard and he's paid attention to the people around him," Mayfield said. "It's not just his own experiences, but he's learned from (Mike) Leach, from Ruffin (McNeill) at ECU and from Coach Stoops. He watched all those guys and took notes and paid attention to all of them. He hasn't changed at all and that's the best thing about him.

"You know you can build a relationship with him and he'll be there throughout every phase of your life."

Both teams have questions at running back, with the Sooners replacing Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, and the Miners replacing the school's all-time leading rusher in Aaron Jones.

All three of those running backs left for the NFL with eligibility remaining.

Riley faced no questions about UTEP at his weekly press conference Monday, his only mention of the Miners coming in his opening statement, where he praised UTEP coach Sean Kugler.

Riley mostly addressed his head coaching debut and the many questions surrounding his team, especially when it comes to offensive skill position players and the defense, with an eye looking toward next week's monumental game at Ohio State.

Kugler, however, talked plenty about the Sooners at his meeting with the media.

"I'm realistic when it comes to this game," Kugler said. "I'm not a fool. We're 45-point underdogs. But I'm also realistic with what type of team we have and I know these kids are going to go out and compete their tails off."

Coming off a 4-8 season and searching this year for just UTEP's second winning season since 2005, Kugler wants to see progress that the Miners can take into the rest of their schedule.

But he's also not writing off the game, even if he knows the odds are long.

"We can't drop balls," Kugler said. "We can't turn the ball over, and we're going to have to steal possessions from these guys, whether it's us running the ball efficiently and dragging out series and try to gain two possessions with possession time or gaining the ball on defense with one, two or three turnovers and gaining possessions that way.

"If you give Oklahoma extra possessions, they're going to make you pay because they have the talent to do that."

While the Sooners didn't turn the ball over much last season -- just 17 times -- they also didn't force many.

No defensive back had more than two interceptions despite the defense breaking up 55 passes.

"That's a high, high point of emphasis," Sooners defensive end/linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said.

The Sooners moved to a four-man defensive front this offseason to try to make it harder for quarterbacks to find much time in the pocket. While UTEP might not match up in many spots with Oklahoma, they will provide a test in that area at least.

The Miners' top player is left guard Will Hernandez, a preseason All-American.

"Even with all the good teams that we're going to play this year, I don't know that we'll play an offensive lineman individually any better than this guy," Riley said. "He's fantastic. He's got a bright future and looks like a guy that has a chance to play on Sundays for a long time."

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