For Oklahoma fans, it looks like 2010 could bring yet another chance to claim a BCS national title.
As the football season draws closer, all the popular magazines have come out with OU ranking no lower than fifth. Phil Steele's publication even has the Sooners at No. 1.
So let's first look at the strengths of the Oklahoma Sooners to get an idea of why they are ranked so high. Then we will examine what I see as the five biggest flaws that could keep them from claiming the national title in 2010.
Defense. Especially the front seven. Even with the departure of Gerald McCoy OU should once again rank among the best defenses in the nation. DE Jeremy Beal and MLB Travis Lewis are among the best in football at their respective positions.
WR Ryan Broyles, who in 2009, was the first wideout to lead the Sooners in scoring. Who should be a Heisman candidate for 2010, but that's another story.
Special teams play will also be a strong suit. Tress Way averaged 40.3 net per kick, good for 5th best in the nation. Having a punter that can flip the field of play in your favor, or pin an offense deep in its own territory is a priceless advantage.
On the other side, the Sooners averaged 16.3 yards per return on punts. A big reason was none other than Ryan Broyles, this time as a return man, who will once again take on the punt return role in 2010.
Kick-off coverage may have turned the tide against a tough Stanford Cardinal team in the 2009 Sun bowl, with Ronnell Lewis (OU LB) laying out the returner twice, and with considerable authority, turning the momentum towards the Sooners' favor.
Another notable strength is play calling. Kevin Wilson (OU OC) and Brent Venables (OU DC) called exceptional games last year ending the season in style with a shut-out of rival OSU (the third shut-out in 2009), and a bowl win over arguably the best team in the Pac-10 in Stanford.
Last but not least is the fact that Oklahoma is just about unbeatable at home. Bob Stoops has fashioned two separate 19-win steaks, and now owns the the nations best current streak (and OU record) with 30 straight wins.
After a mediocre 8-12 season in 2008, Jimmy Stephens was again tapped as place kicker for 2009. But after a few erratic outings, it was clear the job was up fpr grabs. Tress Way tried his luck against Nebraska, only to get blocked twice (46 and 45 yard tries) in the first quarter. Then, shanked one badly late in the third.
So against Texas A+M it was back to Stephens, who then missed an extra point. Check that, back to Way. Then Way missed badly again, this time from 35.
Bob Stoops had finally seen enough, and went to third string, ex-soccer player Patrick "Patty" O'Hara, who at that same time a year earlier had been driving a fork lift.
After nailing a 26-yarder in his first play in football, and finishing the year 6-of-9 (15 -of-15 extra-point att), it looked like O'Hara was the full time starter going into 2010. But after getting blocked, and then missing wide left in the Red/White game, O'Hara left the door open for Stephens.
Stephens, though not at all picture-perfect kicks, did step in and hit two field goals. So once again, it looks like Stephens will start the year as the number one guy. But also once again, after a mediocre 11-13 year, his leash is very short.
I wouldn't be surprised to see O'Hara take the field if Stephens misses another extra-point attempt.
What's clear is that someone needs to take control of place kicking duties for the Sooners, or just like in 2008, it may be a big reason why the crystal ball doesn't end up in Norman,OK.
While signal calling the Sooners to a Sun bowl win, and finishing ranked third in both scoring, and total offense in the Big XII, it was being ranked dead last with 14 interceptions that stands out on Landry Jones' stat sheet.
While Jones did what he could after being thrust into the spotlight with a shaky line and wideouts with shakier hands, he still left plays on the field.
Throwing five picks at Nebraska in a one-score loss.
Then following that up with a five-touchdown performance against TAMU.
Jones lacked poise at times and then looked like a Heisman hopefull at others. Though his last showing in the Sun bowl against Stanford, Jones eclipsed Bradfords freshman passing record with a 418 yard outing. Quarterback coach Josh Heuple has shown us that he can develop a quartebacks talent to max levels (Jason White, Sam Bradford).
His new challenge will be to mold Jones to be the next in line to lead the Crimson and Cream to a BCS title. Working in offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson's pass-heavy scheme, where Jones leads, the rest of the Sooners offense will follow. "I can already tell the difference in the way I'm seeing stuff now and what I was seeing then," Jones said this spring.
Funny, I think I remember Bradford saying that very thing in the spring of 2008.
89 receptions for 1,120 yards and 15 TD's. That's what Ryan Broyles contributed in 2009. All that and he missed two games (UM, Baylor) with a shoulder injury. But the problem was that nobody else could catch the ball. Just drop after drop, and defenses can contain the number one guy if your offense doesn't have a second viable threat.
If OU wants to make a championship run, they will need a receiving corps that can perform against a championship defense. Late 2009 was better though, as Dejuan Miller separated himself from the pack somewhat in the last three games. But after the Red/White game it looks like True Frosh Kenny Stills may be to good to keep out of that second option spot, grabbing a game high six catches for 84 yards.
But OU has a surplus of talent waiting to explode.
Brandon Caleb, Cameron Kenney, and Jaz Reynolds are all others that can step in and shine at any time for Oklahoma.
This problem encompasses the whole offense, but really exposed a weak group of tight ends in 2009.
It was a deadly redzone offense that led OU to their last shot at a title, but with injuries across the board, the Sooners got a bit of a pass for 2009.
With Jermaine Gresham lost before the season even started, none of the other TE's looked ready for the starting spot.
Eric Mensic looked serviceable for awhile, but turned heads so much when injury forced him to the OT spot, he's now listed as an offensive lineman.
James Hanna has looked good in practice, and Trent Ratterree has played well at times, but neither has been good at scoring.
Freshmen Trey Millard and Austin Haywood have started to create some buzz in Norman and will push early for playing time. Both are athletic enough to help in the redzone. But the surprise may be WR Dejuan Miller. He proved last year at Kansas State that he can come up big, with a nine-catch 94 yard performance.
At 6'5" and 225lbs Miller could be the best suited Sooner to fill the void left by Gresham and maybe the only viable receiving threat at TE. When down in the redzone, look for Miller to move inside (maybe in a trips TE set) to give Landry Jones another option to look for.
This could be a move that busts it all wide open for the offense, and gets OU another shot at title No. 8.
Oklahoma had their lowest rushing totals in five years with 3.6 yards a carry, and only 135 yards a game. Losses to BYU, Miami, and Nebraska can all be attributed to a lack of a running game. Even Idaho State was able to keep the Sooners out of the endzone on two separate goal-line stands, stuffing run after run.
This is the biggest area of concern for the Sooner nation. A concern that was never laid to rest last year either as OU didn't rush for more than 100 yards in the last two games, getting 84 at OSU, and only 59 against Stanford.
Six of the returning class have starting experience, with most of those starts going to Cory Brandon at 15 starts (689 plays). Center looks the most solid with Ben Habern starting and Brian Lepack backing him up. Guard should be much improved with Tyler Evans at RG, at LG Stephen Good can be a difference maker if he finally lives up to the hype.
Tackle is where the questions lie. LSU transfer Jarvis Jones will cover Landry's blind side at LT, This position will see the best pass rushers the Big XII has to offer. Leaving the RT spot to Cory Brandon. Offensive Line coach James Patton will likely shuffle this lineup around if needed, but he better hit the right mix soon.
Non-conference games against FSU, Air Force, and Cincinnati loom early for the Sooners, and all have credible defenses. If the offensive line continues to lack an ability to run to sustain drives, any shot at BCS glory will be out of the question.