Preseason countdown: No. 2 Oklahoma
Beyond just what getting the old defensive coordinator Mike Stoops back will do, Oklahoma has a defense that would thrive no matter who’s the coach with one of the best and most athletic back sevens in America and a front line that should make up for a lack of experience on the outside with waves of talented prospects working around a deep set of strong tackles.
Even with Landry Jones putting off millions of dollars to have a shot at being a national championship quarterback, the offense has a few concerns with a thin receiving corps and an average set of backs, but the line should be fantastic and the starting receivers have a world of potential and talent. It’s Oklahoma, so feel free to budget in a minimum of 500 points, and then it will be up to the defense to do the rest.
It’s time for the Stoops brothers to recreate the magic, and for a program that’s been really, really close to winning a national title again for over a decade, the new addition to the coaching staff could be just the little push needed to get over the mountain.
What to watch for on offense: A dominant season from the line. Last year the front five allowed just 11 sacks in 583 passing attempts and helped a walk-on running back – Dominique Whaley – look like a star until he got hurt. This year, the line should be even stronger despite the loss of starting left tackle Donald Stephenson. Gabe Ikard and Tyler Evans rank among the best guard tandems in the country, and when healthy, Ben Habern is a terrific center and a great quarterback up front. Lane Johnson is an ultra-athletic left tackle prospect who should be just fine in place of Stephenson, while Daryl Williams might be the most talented blocker on the team despite being the new starter in the mix. They’re blocking for a guy who should be in an NFL training camp this summer as someone’s franchise quarterback, and as long as they keep him upright -- something they had a hard time doing against Oklahoma State -- the offense should be phenomenal once again.
What to watch for on defense: A better year from the secondary. It’s not always fair to criticize any Big 12 secondary considering the barrage of phenomenal quarterbacks in the league. Other teams had to deal with Jones, but OU had to face the No. 2 (Robert Griffin), No. 8 (Ryan Tannehill) and No. 22 (Brandon Weeden) overall picks in the 2012 NFL draft, along with Texas Tech’s Seth Doege, Florida State’s E.J. Manuel, Iowa’s James Vandenberg, Missouri’s James Franklin and Tulsa’s G.J. Kinne. All things considered, the OU secondary held up extremely well, but the gaffes late against Texas Tech and Baylor are all anyone remembers. There might not be the luxury of the No. 8 pass rush in the nation like last year, but the Sooner defensive backfield should still be one of the Big 12’s best units with the corner tandem of Demontre Hurst and former safety Aaron Colvin as rock-solid as they come, and with free safety Tony Jefferson one of the best all-around defenders in the country. There’s depth, experience and speed to burn, but now the consistency has to be there.
The team will be far better if: The pressure is coming from the ends. Gone are Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis, who combined for 14 sacks and 32 tackles for loss at end. The OU front seven will manufacture plays in the backfield from all sides, and it needs to considering the defense works night-and-day better when the quarterbacks are getting hit. Last year the Sooners destroyed Texas 55-17 partly because of eight sacks and 16 tackles for loss. Kansas State and Collin Klein went nowhere, getting stuffed for seven sacks and ten tackles for loss, and Florida State was destroyed by six sacks and 12 plays behind the line. There weren’t any sacks against Texas A&M and OU gave up 379 passing yards. Against Oklahoma State, OU came up with three tackles for loss and no sacks, and while there were several big plays made against Baylor, the two sacks weren’t enough with little pressure in crunch time.
The schedule: The Oklahoma slate is interesting early with a few light scrimmages against UTEP and Florida A&M before getting a week to rest up for Kansas State. Because of a quirk, the Sooners get another week off after the Wildcats to prepare for Texas Tech, and then it's time hit the ground running with no other breaks the rest of the way. With Notre Dame locked in at one non-conference spot it would've been nice to get an off-week in late October, but it didn't happen. In Big 12 action, the slate is spread out nicely without two road games in a row – not counting the neutral site showdown with Texas. After the Red River Rivalry, assuming the Sooners can dominate on their home field, there’s a nice run of Kansas, Notre Dame, at Iowa State, and Baylor to help beef up the record before a three-game showdown at West Virginia, Oklahoma State, and at TCU.
Best offensive player: Senior QB Jones. Thrown into an impossible situation as a freshman, he took over for an injured Sam Bradford and finished with 3,198 yards and 26 scores including 418 yards in the Sun Bowl win over Stanford. With blowout wins over Connecticut in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl and Iowa in the 2011 Insight Bowl, Jones now is 3-0 in postseason games with a Big 12 title and the school record for games started with more records to topple if all goes according to plan. He has to get past a rocky last quarter of 2011 and he has to cut down on his picks, but if he does what he’s supposed to he’ll go down as one of the school’s all-time greats.
Best defensive player: Senior CB Demontre Hurst. Linebacker Tom Wort is the leader and tone-setter, and safety-turned-corner Aaron Colvin was the team’s leading tackler. Tony Jefferson might be the best all-around talent on the defense with the ability to play a smallish end, any of the three linebacker positions and anywhere in the secondary, while tackle Jamarkus McFarland is the anchor up front everything will work around. However, it’s Hurst who might be the key piece to the puzzle with tremendous tackling skills for a corner and the speed and quickness to hang with any receiver in the high-octane Big 12.
Key player to a successful season: Senior DEs David King and R.J. Washington. King is a tackle-sized end on one side and Washington is a linebacker-sized end on the other. Between the two they need to spend the season sitting on the opposing quarterback’s head. Everything else is in place for a loaded defense with a fast and talented linebacking corps, a deep and experience secondary and a slew of big guys to clog things up on the inside. If King and Washington aren’t doing their jobs, though, the coaching staff will have to figure out how to manufacture pressure from other spots.
The season will be a success if: Oklahoma plays for the national title. This isn’t the best team in the country, but it won’t be far off. The potential concerns – pass rush, running game, receiver depth – are minimal while there’s enough talent and experience across the board to demand a more consistent and occasionally more dominant season. Not counting the showdown against an improved Texas, the road games are at UTEP, Texas Tech, Iowa State, West Virginia and TCU, and while there are certainly some landmines to sidestep, any team good enough to think about winning the national title should be able to roll through that away slate. OU will be favored in every game, including home games against Kansas State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma State. Now the team has to bring it game in and game out.
Key game: Nov. 17 at West Virginia. The Texas game is always a season-maker, and it should be a battle this year if the Longhorn quarterback play is better. The Bedlam game against Oklahoma State will be a war, especially considering the young quarterback situation shouldn’t be an issue in late November. The showdown against the Cowboys comes a week after a date at West Virginia, which smells like just the sort of late-season landmine that OU always seems to step on. It will be a shootout and it should be the biggest test of the season for the Sooner secondary.