The Oklahoma Sooners will see considerable talent in the Big 12 in 2012 with West Virginia and TCU replacing SEC-bound Texas A&M and Missouri. For Bob Stoops to claim his eighth conference crown, his squad must perform at a high level on a weekly basis.
Despite the loss of some major contributors and drama at the wide receiver position, the Sooners, once again, are blessed with talent and potential heading into 2012, as OU fans eagerly await the return of the Crimson and Cream to the gridiron.
With the glorious return of fall approaching, here are the keys for the Oklahoma Sooners to conquer the new-look Big 12 this upcoming season.
Skepticism about the Sooners' ability to win away from Norman has haunted Bob Stoops and co. in recent seasons. In order to have any hope of capturing the conference crown in 2012, OU must master a formidable slate of conference opponents in hostile environments.
The trials begin Oct. 6, when the Sooners face Texas Tech in Lubbock, where the Red Raiders have a three-game winning streak against the Crimson and Cream.
Next, the Sooners face Iowa State in Ames on Nov. 3. The matchup comes a week after a date in Norman with Notre Dame, a contest that should be highly entertaining and competitive. It's imperative that the Sooners come out hungry and motivated to avoid being upset at Jack Trice Stadium.
Arguably the most crucial road tests come late in the season, as OU faces highly-touted West Virginia Nov. 17 in Morgantown and closes out the year with a showdown with TCU at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth on Dec. 1.
The contests sandwich the annual Bedlam Game with Oklahoma State, meaning the Sooners will face a gauntlet three-game finale and will truly have to earn the conference crown.
A key trait of any successful football team, or any sports team for that matter, is shining late in the contest, when the game is on the line.
The Sooners have failed to do this in a handful of losses in the Bob Stoops era (see: last year's losses to Baylor and Texas Tech, the 2010 defeat to Missouri), and facing highly competitive conference opponents makes delivering in crunch time all the more important.
With matchups against Texas, TCU, West Virginia, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and others, Oklahoma is bound to be in multiple close contests; don't be surprised to see tie games or three-point margins or slimmer entering the fourth quarter in these contests.
To win the fourth quarter and succeed when it is most essential, the Sooners will rely on an encouraging cast of seniors, headlined by quarterback Landry Jones. If Jones has learned one thing in his time in Norman, it's that the fourth quarter is a phase in which the margin for error is microscopic and the need for capitalizing on opportunities is paramount.
It sounds obvious, but showing consistent fire and desire to win are crucial to having success. And, believe it or not, at times in 2011, fans were unsure how badly the Sooners really wanted to win considering the way they were competing. Examples of this include the 41-38 meltdown against Texas Tech and the 44-10 embarrassment against the Cowboys in Stillwater.
With high-caliber newcomers Texas Christian and West Virginia entering the fray in 2012, the Sooners won't be able to win if they exhibit sleepy performances. They must show passion, fire and hunger for four quarters, period.
For the most part, Bob Stoops has been a master motivator for his team during his tenure in Norman. He will need to be on top of his game once again in 2012.
It's been a rocky offseason for the OU receiving corps. Recently, Bob Stoops announced the suspensions of Jaz Reynolds, Trey Franks and Kameel Jackson. Add to that the departure of superstar Ryan Broyles, and the Sooners look scarily thin at wideout.
Fortunately, OU boasts a recruiting class brimming with potential at the position. Trey Metoyer, the gem of the class, made noise early, logging six receptions for 72 yards at the spring game. He, along with Durron Neal and Courtney Gardner, highlights a highly athletic group of incoming wideouts that could see immediate playing time behind top wideout Kenny Stills.
Additionally, the recent transfer of Jalen Saunders, a former Fresno State player who earned first-team All-WAC honors in 2011, should help.
Given the shakeup at the position, early contributions from these freshmen will be necessary for the Sooners to maintain their offensive prowess.
Entering his senior season, Landry Jones remains an enigma. At times he's looked like the best quarterback in Oklahoma history, like when he threw for a school-record 505 yards against Kansas State in 2011, and at other times he's looked utterly confused, like in the 2011 Bedlam Game, which saw him commit four turnovers.
Jones' final season leaves him a golden opportunity to go out on a positive note by leading his team to a conference championship and competing for an eighth national championship. If he does so, he will secure his place in the pantheon of Oklahoma's greatest quarterbacks.
But to do this, he must be more consistent. That means eliminating turnovers (he had 15 interceptions in 2011), distributing the ball to a variety of receivers and exhibiting poise and grace under pressure. Doing so will be imperative as the Sooners offense develops over the course of the season.
Walk-on phenom Dominique Whaley dazzled at tailback in his brief 2011 campaign, but beyond that the Sooners' rushing attack was mediocre last season. To be a well-rounded and complete offense in 2012, OU would be wise to strengthen its rushing attack.
Assuming Whaley is healthy at the start of the season, the Sooners will possess a bounty of talent at tailback, with Roy Finch, Brennan Clay and promising recruits Alex Ross, Damien Williams and David Smith rounding out the depth chart.
Of course, OU's offense should be slanted toward the passing game, but incorporating more running plays and continuing to utilize behemoth Wildcat quarterback Blake Bell would reap long-term benefits for Oklahoma and present challenges for conference foes.
A championship team, after all, must be balanced and multidimensional.
The Sooner secondary was porous at times in 2011, yielding 450-plus outputs in losses to Baylor and Oklahoma State. Overall, OU ranked 79th in passing yards allowed per game, an unacceptable mark for a program that prides itself on stifling defense.
Sooner fans hope incoming defensive coordinator Mike Stoops can replicate his success during his first stint in Norman and remake the unit into an elite squad once again.
Tony Jefferson, Demontre Hurst and Aaron Colvin will provide experience and reliability in the defensive backfield and should ease the transition to Stoops' scheme and the loss of cornerback Jamell Fleming.
In a pass-happy league, having a consistent and competent pass defense is a must, and the Sooners will be tested early and often in conference play. Hopefully for Sooner fans, Stoops and his veteran leaders are up to the challenge.
The Mountaineers, coming off a sparkling 2011 campaign and retaining quarterback Geno Smith, receiver Tavon Austin and a slew of starters, are in good position to compete for the conference, and possibly national, championship in their inaugural stint in the Big 12.
Indeed, ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach ranked Dana Holgorson's squad eighth in his preseason poll, two spots behind Oklahoma.
Considering the timing of the contest (Nov. 17) and the prospects of both teams, don't be surprised if the bout becomes the de facto conference championship. Both teams must surmount other formidable foes, especially late in the season, but if you're going to circle one conference game that could decide the Big 12 winner, circle this one.
Success in college football inevitably requires some luck, and luck is a definite factor in injuries. OU has had costly injuries in recent seasons, with the loss of star wideout Ryan Broyles last season being especially crippling.
Of course, injuries are going to happen in football and they are largely beyond a player's control, but health will be an important factor for the Sooners' 2012 prospects. If they are to win the conference, they must stay as healthy as possible.
Encouraging for Oklahoma enthusiasts is the veteran leadership returning in 2012. Landry Jones, Kenny Stills, Ben Habern, Tom Wort and Demontre Hurst are among a solid foundation of juniors and seniors who should provide wisdom and guidance as the 2012 campaign gets under way. Their success will be crucial if the Sooners are to be relevant at the end of the regular season.
Granted, OU lost major contributors from last year's squad in Broyles, Travis and Ronnell Lewis and Frank Alexander, among others, but both sides of the ball will be graced by seasoned players who should bring poise and stability to their respective units.
Offensively, Landry Jones headlines a solid nucleus of juniors and seniors, including Stills, Dominique Whaley and Habern, Gabe Ikard and Tyler Evans on the offensive line.
Defensively, JaMarkus McFarland and David King anchor the defensive line, Tom Wort and Corey Nelson bring stability to the linebacking corps and Hurst, Javon Harris, Tony Jefferson and Aaron Colvin man the secondary.