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No. 4 Sooners hit the road for opener at UTEP

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NORMAN, Okla. (AP)

When No. 4 Oklahoma heads out into the Sun Bowl for its season opener against UTEP, it will be a vastly different Sooners squad than the one that dodged a falling overhead camera and won the Insight Bowl.

Bob Stoops will still be coaching from the sidelines for the 14th straight year and Landry Jones will once again be throwing passes, just as he has done for the past three seasons. But the cast of characters around them is far, far different than just eight months ago.

The team's top rusher is back from a broken ankle, the receiving corps is almost entirely brand new, the offensive line has been shuffled around because of injuries and there's not a proven tight end on the roster. On defense, four starters are gone to the NFL and four who remain are playing different positions. The two most experienced defensive tackles are both expected to be held out against the Miners.

Despite all that, the expectations haven't changed. The Sooners start the season in the top 5 and as the preseason choice to win the Big 12 title for an eighth time.

But will they really that good?

''Who knows?'' Stoops said. ''You have to go earn it. You have to stay healthy. You have to get a break here or there. You have to play well. I feel like our guys have done that.

''Are we talented? I think in today's college football everybody is pretty similar. The top 10, 15 or 20 teams, there's not a whole lot of difference. Usually what makes a difference moreso than talent is who has a little more experience with the talent.''

The Sooners have that experience in places, but also plenty of newcomers. The go-to receiver at the start of last season was All-American Ryan Broyles, on his way to catching the most passes in NCAA history. This season begins with only one receiver - Kenny Stills - who has ever caught a pass for the Sooners.

Penn State transfer Justin Brown and freshmen Trey Metoyer, Sterling Shepard and Durron Neal are some of the new targets for Jones.

Up front, the offensive line has spent training camp adjusting after center Ben Habern brought an early end to his injury-plagued career and guard Tyler Evans suffered a season-ending knee injury. Gabe Ikard moved from guard to center, and the right side of the line has a new look with Bronson Irwin and Daryl Williams with just one career start among the two of them.

The defense, forged behind the closed gates at practice, could be vastly different. Stoops brought in his brother, Mike, to try and re-create the defenses of the early 2000s when Oklahoma won one national title and played for another.

Some details have emerged, including a change in the coverage package and four players in the five-man secondary switching positions. Two veteran defensive tackles who were supposed to be in the mix are likely out for the opener, Stacy McGee because of a suspension and Casey Walker for personal issues.

The unit is out to prove itself after giving up more than 400 yards passing in two of the team's three losses in 2011.

''We're a different team than we were a year ago,'' said Mike Stoops, the defensive coordinator. ''We've got to forget, we've got to have a short memory. We're concentrating on what we need to do this year in the scheme.''

After six straight losing seasons, UTEP coach Mike Price said he thinks this year's squad is ''one of the best teams we've had'' following a mostly injury-free training camp. Preseason Conference USA first-team quarterback Nick Lamaison leads the way, with Nathan Jeffery expected to take on a bigger role with the team's three top rushers gone.

The Sooners will be the highest-ranked opponent ever to play at UTEP in a game that was organized only after TCU was bumped from being a nonconference opponent to a Big 12 foe last October.

''We're just so darned psyched up to have Oklahoma here and for this chance of a lifetime to play them that we're just really positive about how we're going to play and so's our community,'' Price said. ''So, we're not giving up before the fat lady sings. If we had to play them 10 times in a row, they might beat us nine out of 10. But we're encouraged to think that we have a chance at one out of 10.''

Tagged: UTEP, Oklahoma, Mike Price

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