Oklahoma Sooners Football: 10 Biggest Hurdles to a Big 12 Crown
Many college football teams are preparing for a long, uphill battle this season in order to make it to the top. For the preseason No. 1 ranked Oklahoma Sooners, the only way to go is down.
They will face hurdles throughout the season that they will have to jump in order to stay on top, but finding a way to overcome adversity is a key factor in a winning season.
The Sooners have won the Big 12 crown in four of the last five seasons, and they have won a total of seven Big 12 crowns in the Bob Stoops era (1999-present).
They look poised to win their eighth this season, especially with conference foes Nebraska and Colorado playing elsewhere and arch-rival Texas going through a rebuilding year.
But the stakes remain high for an OU team who is destined to win their first national championship since 2000, and a Big 12 crown is the first step.
Last week I wrote an article describing the 10 reasons OU would remain on top throughout the year. You can read that article here.
But to find out what hurdles OU may have to face, click on to the next slide.
Being Ranked No. 1
The most immediate hurdle the Sooners will have to face is the inevitability of being ranked No. 1.
While it may be an honor to be thought of as the best team in the nation during the preseason, history has proven otherwise.
In the last ten seasons, only one team has won the national championship after being ranked No. 1 in the preseason, and that team (USC) eventually had to give up their trophy due to player infractions.
The Sooners hope to break the curse, run the table and finish as national champions this season, but it won't come easy.
Being No. 1 puts a target on your back throughout the season. Every team wants to beat the best, so you have to play better than your best every game.
There is a noticeable lack of "elite" teams this season in college football, and if OU can get past Florida State, then the curse could be broken.
Currently, the Sooners have one glaring issue with injuries, and that deals with All-American linebacker Travis Lewis.
Lewis suffered a toe injury in spring practice that has sidelined him at least until the Red River Rivalry game with Texas.
Lewis is the leader of the Sooners' defense. Although Corey Nelson is a good replacement, Lewis' absence will surely be missed.
Another Sooner who will be out until the Red River Rivalry is offensive lineman Jarvis Jones. Even though the Sooners have a good offensive line without him, Jones will make it a great one upon his return.
With these two out, the Sooners will have to face Tulsa, Florida State, Missouri, and Ball State. While Tulsa and Missouri should prove to be valuable competitors, sixth-ranked Florida State will be the big game, especially because it's in Tallahassee.
If the Sooners can get past Florida State and get Lewis and Jones back two weeks later, then running the table until the National championship is a valid option.
Other than injuries, academic eligibility is the Sooners' other current problem.
Starting defensive end/linebacker hybrid Ronnell Lewis is the main player involved with eligibility issues, but his problems run deeper than just eligibility.
Lewis has also been dealing with "personal issues" this summer that have kept him away from the team.
Head Coach Bob Stoops still doesn't know if Lewis has been cleared to play, even though summer courses Lewis took in order to stay on the field ended more than a couple weeks ago.
Lewis is poised to have a huge year for the Sooners, so if he and Travis Lewis are unable to play, the Sooners could be in trouble against Florida State and Missouri.
Other players that are currently academically ineligible for the Sooners are WR Trey Metoyer and DT Jordan Wade.
Highly-recruited DT Jordan Phillips was also dealing with eligibility issues, but he has officially been cleared to play.
Defensive Tackle Experience and Productivity
I'm a believer in Oklahoma's somewhat young and inexperienced defensive tackles, but it's clear that they are the one "weakness" on an otherwise great defense.
JaMarkus McFarland was as highly touted as they come when he arrived at OU, but after two full seasons of playing a backup role, McFarland has yet to live up to the hype.
This season, McFarland is set to be a full-time starter and has shown vast improvement in spring practice. If McFarland wants to help his draft stock, this would be the season to take the next step.
Juniors Stacy McGee and Casey Walker are also set to earn a considerable amount of playing time, along with redshirt freshman Torrea Peterson.
McGee started 10 games for the Sooners last season, and that's more than Walker, McFarland and Peterson have started combined.
The great defensive ends for OU should be able to counter-balance any weakness the defensive tackles show in week one against Tulsa, but a good defense really starts with good defensive tackles.
They will have to get everything figured out by week two in order to stop Florida State's rushing attack.
I've already talked about why Florida State might be difficult to face due to the Sooners' current concerns with injuries and eligibility, but Florida State would be a hurdle even if Travis Lewis and Ronnell Lewis were in the lineup.
The Seminoles suffered an embarrassing 47-17 loss in Norman early last season, so they will be looking to return the favor this season at home in Tallahassee.
Like any team, Florida State still has some questions to be answered about their team, but the big question deals with their quarterback situation.
Last season, the Seminoles were lucky enough to have a first round draft pick playing QB in Christian Ponder. This season, the Seminoles are starting highly touted EJ Manuel.
Manuel is very imposing. He is 6'5", 245 pounds and has a great arm. The key to beating the Seminoles will be to first stop Manuel.
The Sooners will then have to focus on stopping the run, which could prove to be more difficult if Travis and Ronnell aren't playing.
This should make for a great game and the first major hurdle the Sooners will have to face.
New Offensive Coordinator
I wrote in my previous article about why the Sooners would stay on top all season, and Josh Heupel was the No. 2 reason for this.
I stand by that statement, but there will no doubt be some adjustment period for the Sooners and their new offensive coordinator.
Heupel took over calling plays for the Sooners during their Fiesta Bowl victory over Connecticut last season and did an admirable job. But before then, Kevin Wilson, who is now the head coach at Indiana, was OU's offensive coordinator for the last five seasons.
There will be a meshing period, and it will likely come in the first two games since one is at home and one is on the road.
Fortunately for the Sooners and Heupel, their first game is at home against Tulsa, so there should be some leeway in awkward offensive possessions.
Unfortunately for the Sooners, the second game is on the road against Florida State.
Heupel will need to get everything figured out by then in order to help give the Sooners a chance at winning on the road.
Running Back Productivity
The Sooners should be a force offensively with Landry Jones and Ryan Broyles leading the way, but they still need to have a running game figured out to open up the passing game.
Over the past few years, the Sooners have been set at that position with DeMarco Murray, Chris Brown, Mossis Madu, Allen Patrick, Adrian Peterson, etc.
This season, however, somebody will have to step up and really make a name for themselves.
Even though it's likely to be a running back by committee, one name in particular that should stand out is sophomore RB Roy Finch.
In the time he was given last season, Finch proved to be an electric player. He more or less played the role that Murray played during his freshman season.
But the Sooners will have a bevy of running backs to throw at opposing defenses this year, including fellow sophomores Brennan Clay and Jonathan Miller.
Between the three, there should be at the very least an adequate running game, but I suspect that the Sooners will be above average in that regard.
That's speculation though, and the running game still remains a hurdle for the Sooners.
Red River Rivalry
It's true that Texas is going to be down this year. Coming off of a very disappointing 5-7 season, the Longhorns will be in the rebuilding process to find out where they went wrong.
Hopefully for the Sooners, they will be able to take advantage of this and use their experience and talent to make this game easier than it has been.
In the Bob Stoops vs. Mack Brown era, Stoops currently has a 7-5 advantage, and aside from a few blowouts, the games have all been close.
This includes last year's game, which the Sooners won 28-20. This was against a not very good Texas team, so the Sooners really can't overlook the game this year.
As one of the biggest rivalries in all of college football, this should be a given "hurdle" every season for the Sooners, regardless of talent on either side of the ball.
This has the possibility of being the biggest Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State game ever.
While OU is currently ranked No. 1 in the polls, OSU isn't far behind at No. 9. Both have top talent this season, and both are expected to do great things.
History has shown us that this hasn't been a very "big" game, even though it's quite a big rivalry. In the Stoops era, the Sooners own the series. They're 12-2 against the Cowboys, but they haven't had much competition to be fair.
This season is different though. This game could very well decide the fate of the Big 12 champion as well as the national champion, especially if both teams are still undefeated when they meet.
Both teams should have high-powered offenses, so this game will depend on which defense comes to play.
Oklahoma State is a hurdle altogether that the Sooners have to get by, but more specifically, Justin Blackmon is their main target.
Blackmon is the best receiver in college football and is a likely to be a top five draft pick. Last season, Blackmon hauled in 111 receptions for 1,782 yards and a remarkable 20 touchdowns.
This literally came out of nowhere after Blackmon's average freshman campaign: 20 receptions for 260 yards and 2 touchdowns.
No matter the case, Blackmon has definitely improved and is a force to be reckoned with.
The reason Blackmon could be a hurdle for the Sooners is the fact that he's bigger than both of Oklahoma's cornerbacks.
Demontre Hurst stands around 5'10" in cleats (on a good day) and Jamell Fleming is maybe 5'11"... maybe. Still, that gives Blackmon at least a two-inch advantage on Fleming and a three or four-inch advantage on Hurst.
Not to mention, Blackmon is fast, athletic and can jump. If there is a jump ball between Blackmon and Fleming or Blackmon and Hurst, there shouldn't be much competition.
OU will have to double-team him as much as possible, but by doing this, they leave themselves wide open to other man-coverages that Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden will be able to dissect.
Again, this should be a really exciting game.