Every journey toward a national championship starts with the first game, and the Oklahoma Sooners will take their act on the road against the UTEP Miners in the season opener for both teams.
The Sooners welcome back quarterback Landry Jones for his senior season and start the year ranked No. 4 in both the AP and USA Today polls. Perhaps the biggest move of the offseason was bringing back Mike Stoops, who was co-defensive coordinator for the 2000 national title team, to run the defense this year.
UTEP is coming off a five-win season in 2011. The Miners are not a terrible team, per se, but they don't do anything really special. They are, as their 5-7 mark last year indicates, a middle-of-the-road program, though they do have the luxury of playing this game on their turf.
How will Oklahoma finish in 2012?
Where: Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas
When: Saturday, September 1 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Watch: Fox Sports Regional Coverage
Live Stream: Sooner Sports ($9.95 per month)
Betting Line: Oklahoma -31, according to Bovada
Key Storyline: OU Defense vs. UTEP Offense
Even though the UTEP offense is not a dynamic unit, it does possess a strong, powerful running attack that can take advantage of an Oklahoma defense that was susceptible to big plays last year.
However, the Sooners were often picked apart by teams that could throw the ball downfield. If the Miners want to hang in this game, they will have to figure out a way to incorporate more downfield pass plays into their offense.
For the Sooners, this game is all about building confidence. They are expected to win in a walk, so they will have to show some refinement in certain areas of the game to prove they have moved past last season's "disappointing" 10-3 mark.
Injury Report (Courtesy of USA Today)
Probable: RB Dominique Whaley (Ankle)
Out: DT Stacy McGee (Suspension), DB Trey Franks (Suspension), DB Quentin Hayes (Suspension), WR Jaz Reynolds (Suspension), OL Tyler Evans (Knee)
Top 25 Implications
Oklahoma has big aspirations this year. Things fell apart for the Sooners last year, as their defense failed to live up to expectations. That has become a common thread in recent years for this team, as it always seems to stumble in a game or two it shouldn't.
Starting the season as the fourth-ranked team carries with it high expectations. Having Landry Jones return also brings extra weight to what this team should do.
This is a nice test for the Sooners to start the season, as we can see where the offense will be right now, and the defense doesn't have to worry about shutting down a high-octane offense right out of the gate.
A loss here would undo everything that Bob Stoops and Co. have built for this season. It wouldn't completely bury them, but it would be very difficult for them to be taken seriously as a title contender.
What They're Saying
Jake Trotter of Sooner Nation (via ESPN.com) is anxious to see what Mike Stoops can do with this defense in his return to Oklahoma:
The defensive line lacks a difference-maker such as Tommie Harris or Gerald McCoy, but it possesses a nice blend of seasoned veterans such as David King and Casey Walker and potential future stars such as Jordan Phillips and Charles Tapper. The linebacking corps is deep and fast.
But whether the defense returns to the elite probably hinges on whether Stoops can elevate the performance of a defensive backfield that, while loaded with talent, was gashed too often last season.
For all the talk about recruits and talent coming in, the biggest addition to the Sooners over the summer probably was Stoops. He has a great feel for defensive coaching, even if it didn't translate to success as a head coach.
Oklahoma Player To Watch: QB Landry Jones
It is easy to single out the quarterback, yet in Jones' case, it feels very appropriate. He had a terrific season in 2011, with 4,463 yards and 29 touchdowns, though he did have 15 interceptions.
He enters the year as a legitimate Heisman candidate. The Sooners did lose Ryan Broyles to the NFL, and big-play receiver Jaz Reynolds is out of this game due to a suspension.
The onus is on Jones to carry this offense as high as it can go. He is the focal point of everything this team wants to do. When he succeeds, everyone else around him looks that much better.
UTEP Player To Watch: RB Nathan Jeffery
The Miners lost a lot of players from last year's offense, including running backs Joe Banyard and Vernon Frazier and wide receiver Donavon Kemp. They are working with a new nucleus that has to score a lot of points to keep pace with Oklahoma.
Since they don't boast a high-flying attack, their best course of attack will be to control the ball on the ground. Jeffery is a sophomore who had just 26 carries last year, but this is the biggest game of his life.
If Jeffery can slice through the Sooners defensive front, things could get very interesting in El Paso.
Key Matchup: UTEP Offensive Line vs. Oklahoma Defensive Line
We keep harping on it, so it should be no surprise that this will be the matchup that determines which direction this game goes.
The Miners absolutely need to run the ball to have success. They are not a great rushing team, though they do have some power up front to control the line of scrimmage.
Oklahoma's defensive line was not the problem for the team last year—there was so much pressure on that unit to perform because the secondary wasn't very good. It will be on the big men up front to step up again in order to carry the Sooners to a dominant victory.
The way it was written, it might seem like I think UTEP has a better chance in this game than it actually does.
Oklahoma has superior talent at every position, plus considerable depth to just keep smashing the ball into the end zone almost at will. This one will not be that close.
Oklahoma 45, UTEP 13