Sooners look to make jump back into nation's elite behind new quarterback, new-look defense
NORMAN, Okla. – Consistency hasn't been a problem for Oklahoma of late.
The issue has been finding a way to make the jump from the elite of the Big 12 Conference back to national championship contender. Coach Bob Stoops hopes this is the season the Sooners make that jump, a year that appears to be one of transition for the tradition-rich school.
Oklahoma has won 10 games in each of the last three seasons, including a share of the Big 12 title last year, but it enters this season without record-setting quarterback Landry Jones under center for the first time since 2008.
Stoops is counting an experienced offensive group to pick up the slack in Jones' absence. He also expects Jones' replacement — whomever that might be — to perform at a high level from the moment the Sooners open their season against Louisiana-Monroe on Aug. 31.
Regardless of who the signal caller is, Oklahoma won't challenge for its first national championship since 2000 unless it finds a way to improve a defense that allowed 34 of more points in four of its last five games last season.
"We've got a challenging year ahead of us, and it really starts from the beginning," Stoops said. "We understand and know it's going to be a challenge, but again, I believe it has our players' attention."
Five things to watch for as Oklahoma looks to return to the top of the Big 12:
1. THE QUARTERBACK IS?: Stoops has been in no hurry to name a starting quarterback during the preseason. Junior Blake Bell and redshirt freshman Trevor Knight are the primary candidates to replace Jones, after a foot injury knocked sophomore Kendal Thompson from the preseason competition, with Bell thought to be the front-runner. The 6-foot-6, 263-pound Bell saw action as a short-yardage running option last season, finishing with 11 rushing touchdowns, and he's excited for the chance to show off his throwing ability after patiently waiting his turn behind Jones.
2. RUN STOPPERS: For large portions of last season, Oklahoma went with a coverage-heavy defense — void of any linebackers — in an attempt to keep up with the Big 12's high-powered offenses. The result was the second-worst rushing defense in the conference, with the Sooners allowing 192.2 yards per game on the ground, including 5.2 yards per rush. Stoops has acknowledged Oklahoma played too much coverage last season, and he's counting on a youthful defensive line, led by junior defensive end Chuka Ndulue, to improve against the run this year. Also, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops is returning for his second year back with the Sooners and is counting on his familiarity with the team's personnel — and Big 12 offenses — to help slow down opponents.
3. WOUNDED PRIDE: The Sooners were picked 16th in the preseason coaches' poll, a blow to what has traditionally been one of the top programs in the country. Oklahoma's turnover at quarterback likely played a role in the ranking, just as did last season's crushing 41-13 loss to Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Stoops has limited player availability, and you have to wonder if he's not setting up the Sooners for an us-against-the-world approach. "I know my teammates and what we can do and what we're capable of," running back Brennan Clay said. "We've always been in the top five, top three or whatever it may be, and had an easy run at going at No. 1. We've always has that bulls-eye on our back. I think it's a little better kind of laying low right now."
4. STEADY HAND: Oklahoma must replace seven starters on defense this season. One player the Sooners are thrilled to have back is senior cornerback Aaron Colvin, who had four interceptions and 11 passes defended last season. "Aaron is a great leader," Stoops said. "He's a great player, and players recognize that. He's very competitive in how he plays, and Aaron is one of our best leaders."
5. RECORD WATCH: Stoops enters this season just eight wins short of tying former Oklahoma great Barry Switzer as the winningest coach in school history. Stoops is entering his 15th season with the Sooners, and he has a 149-37 record. His .801 winning percentage still trails Switzer (.837) and Bud Wilkinson (.826), but Stoops appears on track to overtake Switzer's school-record 157 wins before season's end. Just don't expect Stoops to keep tabs on where he's at on the record list. "In today's world, it isn't easy to be somewhere that long," Stoops said. "Just look around; there aren't many that have stayed in one place that long, currently anyway. I knew when I did take the job this was not a stepping-stone job. You don't come here and win to get another job."
Predicted finish in the Big 12: Second.