Head coach Bob Stoops got back in the BCS-winning column when the Sooners rolled right over the Big East Champions University of Connecticut in last season's Fiesta Bowl by a score of 48-20.
After raising up the Fiesta Bowl champion's golden football, he now hopes to trade that trophy for the crystal football that he last hoisted at the end of the 2000 season. At the controls of the most successful football program since the end of the second world war, Stoops is hoping to capture Oklahoma's eighth national championship this year.
Perfection is never easy, however, so the Sooners face an uphill battle. To accomplish this daunting task they will need some strong performances from key elements of this year's team.
Let's look at some reasons that Coach Stoops and the Sooner Nation are optimistic about Oklahoma's ability to achieve this lofty goal.
The offensive line may be the best in several years for the Sooners
Two years ago the Sooners had to resort to taking an undersized tight end to start in the final game because they had been so decimated from injuries. How times have changed!
Last year's offensive line made great strides in controlling the line of scrimmage. Losing only one starter and with tremendous improvement in the development of strong backups, this season's offensive line made a concerted effort to continue its effective pass blocking. Meanwhile, the linemen worked very hard to improve their run blocking. Reports in the offseason made Oklahoma fans salivate at the prospect of what could be done by this squad.
In the game against Tulsa, the offensive line appeared much improved, opening holes that allowed walk-on RB Dominique Whaley to rack up 131 yards and four touchdowns. Overall, Oklahoma rushed for 246 yards against a decent Golden Hurricane defense.
In contrast, Florida State earned only 262 yards in two games against much less talented defenses in preparation for the huge game with Oklahoma this Saturday. That bodes well both for the game in Tallahassee and for the remainder of the season.
Jimmy Stevens will be a key player to add points to the scoreboard
Special teams have been a thorn in the side of the Sooners over the last few years. During the offseason Stoops has been strongly emphasizing this as a key element in the team's arsenal for the 2011 season. In the upsets by Missouri and Texas A&M last year, big kick returns help to sink their hopes for victory. Why would this year's team be different?
First, Jimmy Stevens has reportedly made significant improvement in his field goal accuracy. Toward the end of the 2010 season, he hit 12 of his last 13 FG attempts. That is impressive. If he has made additional strides toward becoming a better placekicker the Sooners will be in strong position to get points any time they approach the red zone.
Secondly, Patrick O'Hara has strengthened his leg to the point that he is more frequently knocking his kickoffs into the end zone. It is hard to return a kickoff for a touchdown if you have to take a knee for a touchback. On his kicks that do not reach the end zone, the height of his kicks provide a tremendous boost for the coverage players. Controlling the field position after the kickoffs after the Sooners' frequent touchdowns could be a major factor in avoiding the adverse results they allowed last season.
Thirdly, Coach Stoops has made the decision to change the quality of players on the special teams for Oklahoma. Instead of second-string players in the coverage team, Stoops has placed his top first-string players on the field to control the difficulties suffered last year.
Next, the return players will be some of the best in the nation. With All-American Ryan Broyles back for his senior season instead of advancing to the NFL, every punt return has the opportunity to drastically change field position for the Sooners offense. For kickoff returns, Broyles, Kenny Stills, Trey Franks and Brennan Clay all have the ability to break big returns to thrill the hearts of the Oklahoma fans.
Finally, last year punter Tress Way had the third-best punting season in the history of Oklahoma football program. As a junior, he has made further improvements in both the distance of his punts and the hang time he generates with his kicks. As with the touchbacks on the kickoffs, the opposition can't return a punt for a touchdown when it has to take a fair catch!
All-American Ryan Broyles chose to return to college for a run at the National Championship!
When QB Landry Jones drops back to pass he will have plenty of great targets to choose from. The Sooner receiving corps is one of the best in the country, so we need to examine the players that will drive the defensive coordinators in the Big 12 crazy.
First and foremost, the fact that Ryan Broyles is back is enough to create some sleepless nights for the defensive backs he will face. All he did last year was come in second in the nation in catches and fourth in the nation for receiving yards, while setting nine more school records for receiving. With a similar year this season, he will be rewriting similar all-time receiving records not only for OU but also for the NCAA.
Who would have believed that during the heyday of the wishbone back in the 1970s?
In a year highlighting an amazing class of true freshmen, Kenny Stills looked like the next great receiver at Oklahoma as he set school records for both receptions and yardage for a first-year player. He was named a a freshman All-American as he gained nearly 800 yards. As if that wasn't enough, Stills drew raves from his fellow players and coaches as he made terrific progress in the offseason. This year, with teams focusing on defending Broyles, the sky is the limit for this sophomore.
No. 24 Dejuan Miller had an excellent start last year, including five big catches against the Longhorns, when he had a season-ending injury that took him out of the lineup. He reportedly made some terrific progress prior to the Tulsa game. Then he showed the fans and future opponents that he could not only make important catches but also make some major downfield blocks for his teammates, springing them for key big plays to take control of the game. He will be a significant player as the season rolls on.
Since the early exit of Jermaine Gresham (as a first-round draft pick), there has been a relative absence of tight end involvement in the passing game. That appeared to be remedied in the first game of this season as the tight ends made several important receptions for critical first downs. James Hanna averaged 23 yards per reception, while the the longest reception of the tight ends went for 41 yards.
With the tight ends presenting big and quick targets downfield, they will definitely complicate the pass defense for the teams playing the Sooners this year.
Travis Lewis is expected back before the Red River Rivalry
As an All-American and the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, big things were expected from Travis Lewis starting from the first game of the season. All of that changed when Lewis suffered a fractured bone in his foot during fall practice. The Sooners turned out not to require his services against Tulsa, but the coaches sure would have liked to have had their star LB back for the Florida State game.
As with other things in life, this was a disappointment as the weakside linebacker will sit on the bench for that major out-of-conference contest. However, when he does return the offensive squads facing the Sooners may well be sorry to see No. 28 across the line of scrimmage, ready to pounce on their players.
In the meantime, there will still be linebackers Tom Wort and Corey Nelson ready to take up the slack. Both are part of the impressive freshman class that made so many waves last year. Now as true sophomores with each playing in all 14 games last season, that experience places them in good position to make major contributions for defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
Wort played so well in 2010 that he started in nine games and was named as a second-team All-American. He showed an ability to cover passes, take down ball carriers, and to even have a terrific knack for sacks and tackles for loss. Corey Nelson had a fabulous first game of the year as he had a sack, participated in three tackles for loss and had eight total tackles. While there is room for improvement, Wort and Nelson showed they are truly ready for the big-time games to come.
Helping to fill in the gap caused by the loss of Lewis is the versatile defensive back Tony Jefferson. Playing in the famous "Roy" position (named for the great player that Roy Williams was at OU), Jefferson could be the very example of multi-tasking. He can cover downfield in the passing game, yet can use his speed to blitz in both the run game and pass game. Because of this, the Sooners can man-up for rushing defense or drop back into a nickel package without having to change personnel. This allows Venables and crew to run any type of pass coverage they desire without tipping off the opposing QB prior to the snap of the ball.
Offensive coaches playing the Sooners may want to keep some ibuprofen around while they watch tapes of the OU defense when creating their game plan!
The defensive line appeared to be a question mark at times during the summer, but as the defensive tackles have progressed the Sooners got some excellent news when Ronnell "The Hammer" Lewis was cleared to return to the lineup. Tackles Casey Walker, Jamarkus McFarland, Torrea Peterson and Stacy McGee proved they can be a presence to block up the center of the line for both rush defense and in pressuring the QB in the pass defense.
The defensive ends looked very good with a rotation of Lewis, Frank Alexander and David King. Alexander looked like a monster with six tackles, a quarterback hurry, a sack, two tipped passes and an interception that he returned for 27 yards.
Four TDs - Not bad for a Walk-On!
With the graduation of DeMarco Murray there were definite questions about how OU would take up the slack. Roy Finch had looked very impressive in the latter half of the season in 2010, resulting in EA Sports naming him as the starter for NCAA Football 12. However, Brennan Clay beat Finch out for the starting position in the Tulsa game. While Clay had a good night with 14 carries for 64 yards, the star that emerged from the first game was Dominique Whaley.
As a walk-on, there were many that didn't believe Coach Stoops when he kept talking about the junior RB through the spring, summer and fall. By the time the clock hit 00:00 there were few that doubted him. The reason was that No. 8 had carried the ball 18 times for 132 yards and four touchdowns. His final TD was a marvelous 32-yard run where Whaley demonstrated the strength to run through tackles, the balance to stay off the turf when virtually everyone in the stadium thought he was down and the speed to run past and away from the defensive backs that vainly tried to catch him prior to reaching the end zone.
There are few people who still claim that the Sooners will not be successful in running the ball, and by the time the clock expires in Tallahassee, hopefully those last remaining unbelievers will be convinced that the Oklahoma offense is ready to pick up right where OU ended up at the end of the Fiesta Bowl victory.
When it appeared Jamell Fleming might not be able to play this season, there were many who felt the defensive backfield might be the Achilles' heel for Oklahoma.
With the emergence of both Gabe Lynn and Demontre Hurst, the outlook didn't look quite so bleak. Then the word came down that Fleming would play, solidifying both the CB situation and the safeties situation as Aaron Colvin was able to move to the strong safety position. The last-minute changes in positions played a significant factor in the three blown coverages that resulted in the scoring drives for Tulsa.
Fortunately, there were two weeks to work out the kinks as the Oklahoma coaches hope they have straightened out those breakdowns. If that is true, the Sooners could be in a strong position to prevent opposing offenses from keeping up with the scoring juggernaut the OU offense appears to be.
With Colvin recording eight tackles, a pass break-up and a fumble recovery, he showed great promise as the SS. Free safety Javon Harris added seven tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in another strong performance. At cornerback, Fleming had five tackles and a pass break-up, while Hurst had five tackles, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble, and Lynn contributed three more tackles.
All in all, the defensive backfield gave a favorable performance in the first game of the season.
The Fiesta Bowl Offensive Player of the Game is . . .
As the winner of the Sammy Baugh Award last year and a leading Heisman Trophy candidate this year, Jones is the trigger man for the 2010 Sooner offense that was third in the nation in passing, having 38 TDs to only 12 interceptions, and was in the top 10 in total offense with more than 6,700 yards. That is a lot of yards!
In the game against Tulsa, Jones was 35-of-47 for 375 yards, with zero interceptions and a touchdown pass, helping OU put up 47 points on the board. What makes this even more impressive for Jones was that this happened basically in only three quarters.
At the end of the first week, Oklahoma was No. 1 in the country both in ranking and in total offense. That total offense ranking is something that may well be close to where Oklahoma may end up at the end of the season.
With the experience of two OU-Texas games, winning the Big 12 Championship game against Nebraska and bowl games against Stanford in the Sun Bowl and UConn in the Fiesta Bowl, Jones enters his third season as a starter with quiet confidence easily transferring from the QB to his teammates. They know they can trust their quarterback in any circumstance and that leadership may be even more important than his accuracy as a passer.
Following in the footsteps of Josh Heupel, Nate Hybl, Jason White, Paul Thompson and Sam Bradford, Jones knows he is carrying on a tradition of excellence. As such, he also understands that the Heisman Trophy and the national championship is within the reach of this team if it executes as it knows it can.
Others may hope they can perform at this high level, but at Oklahoma, you are expected to.
So, this Saturday he will lead the No. 1-ranked Sooners onto the field of the No. 5-ranked Florida State Seminoles, with many expecting this to possibly be the game of the year. Then all Jones has to do is win in impressive fashion, and to continue to do so for 10 more games after that. His reward would be to quarterback the Sooners in the biggest game in college football to decide who will be national champions.
Not that there's any pressure, of course.
The last date on the Owen Field scoreboard for national championships is 2000. For Sooners fans that is simply too long ago. When it comes to national championships, seven is not enough—we need No. 8. Soon thereafter, of course, Sooners fans will be desiring No. 9, but that is for another day.
The OU offense appears to be good enough to place the team in position for that No. 8 victory. While the OU defense is sometimes maligned, it is important for people to recall that because the offense moves so quickly it had the most number of plays of any team in college football last year. Therefore, the defense also has to play more downs than most defenses across the country. The result is their defensive stats are not as favorable compared to a team whose offense chews up the clock with a plodding pace.
On the positive side, nevertheless, it is expected that the Oklahoma offense will score 30 points or more in virtually every game this season. As long as the defense holds the opposition to fewer points than the offense puts up, Sooners fans across the nation will be happy.
Do this 12 more times and the Sooner Nation will ecstatically claim their perceived birthright as the national champions—again.
Not that there's any pressure, of course!