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Preview: Oklahoma ready to rebound
Considering all the injuries and all the problems and all the disappointments and all the rebuilding that needed to be done, Oklahoma's lackluster 2009 season could have been a lot worse.
Everything that could go wrong for the OU offense almost did. The injuries on the line killed any hope for a consistent running game, Jermaine Gresham's knee injury took away the nation's most talented pass-catching tight end before the season even began, and Sam Bradford's crunched shoulder threw the team into a tailspin. Even with all the problems, OU still averaged 424 yards and 31 points, and while that might not be great compared to the 2008 machine, the attack still was solid and was among the best in the Big 12.
Defensively it was business as usual, even though there were injury problems as well. The Sooners finished eighth in the nation in yards allowed and seventh in scoring D, they finished 23rd in the nation in total offense, the punting game was among the best in America, and the punt return game was the best in the Big 12 and finished third in the country.
And it still all added up to 8-5.
At most places, 8-5 in a year in which everything went wrong would be cause for excitement. But for a place like Oklahoma, it's a reason to fire up the panic sirens. On the plus side, the first four losses came by a total of 12 points, and it's not a reach to suggest that OU would have won all four games had Bradford been healthy.
That's not to dismiss the fine job that Landry Jones did when thrown to the wolves, but the reigning Heisman winner and No. 1 overall draft pick would have been the difference in the 14-13 loss to BYU, and would have been more than enough to get by Miami in a one-point loss when the offense needed a veteran leader late. And Bradford absolutely would have been the far better option against Texas after starting out throwing for 77 yards before getting knocked out in the three-point loss. In the 10-3 loss to Nebraska, Jones threw five interceptions.
So yeah, it's safe to assume OU would have been better with Bradford under center, and if you don't believe that, watch the games again and remember just how good No. 14 was.
So in the world of ifs and buts, had Bradford stayed healthy, OU might have been 11-1 (Texas Tech was fantastic in the 41-13 blowout win in late November), gone to the Big 12 title game and, if it had beaten Nebraska, would have gotten a shot at Alabama for the national title. So what's the point? Oklahoma probably isn't as far away from being special again as it might seem.
But Bradford did get hurt, Oklahoma did lose five games and struggled to get by Stanford in the Sun Bowl, and Texas is getting stronger and stronger with some phenomenal recent recruiting classes over the last few years. Losing Bradford was a legitimate excuse last season, but there's no reason not to be good this year. All the injuries and all the problems meant several young players got meaningful playing time, and now the talent level has to match up to experience. Thanks to some good recruiting classes, and with Bob Stoops staying around and not going to Notre Dame, there's no reason to think that last year was anything more than an aberration.
What to watch for on offense: The emergence of name players to become superstars. OU has never had a Biletnikoff winner, but WR Ryan Broyles could end that if he has another season like last year. Jones was the best freshman passer in America and had a statistical season that many quarterbacks would dream of, and he's only going to get better. DeMarco Murray always has had next level talent, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. If he can stay on the field, he has the potential to be one of the nation's most productive running backs. And why should the skill stars be better? The offensive line should be far more consistent than it was last year, even though it actually came through with a good season. More on that in a moment.
What to watch for on defense: The corners. There's a concern on the defensive front with star tackle Adrian Taylor needing to come back healthy after suffering a broken ankle ankle in the bowl win over Stanford, but the production will be there in the front seven. The safeties, Quinton Carter and Sam Proctor, will be terrific, and in time the corners will be fine. But OU always has had issues against teams that can run an effective post pattern, and in the pass-happy Big 12, the spotlight will be on Jonathan Nelson, Demontre Hurst, Gabe Lynn and Jamell Fleming. All have talent, quickness and a world of upside, but they're all a bit green and will be the one area of the defense that's a question mark until around midseason.
The team will be far better if ... the offensive line can find five starters and have the same lineup for most of the season. The offensive line patched things together and did a strong job last year in pass protection but struggled a bit in the running game. That's to be expected considering there were nine different starting lineups up front. While there isn't a Trent Williams-type talent to lead the way, there are some good returning starters and a few solid talents like Donald Stephenson and Tyler Evans to get excited about, but everyone has to stay healthy.
The schedule: Oklahoma doesn't lose in the state of Oklahoma, and there are only three of the seven in-state games that'll provide any sort of an issue: Florida State, Texas Tech and at Oklahoma State. The Sooners will win those three, or will lose one of them at worst. Going to Cincinnati isn't like going to Cincinnati last year, and the offense will have to get its track shoes on for shootouts on the road to face Missouri and Texas A&M, but of course it all comes down to Oct. 2 against Texas. Come out of Dallas with a win and the national title spotlight will be on. Three of the final four games and four of the final six are on the road.
Best offensive player: Junior WR Ryan Broyles. He's not all that big and he's going to get bounced around, but it's not overstating things to say that he saved OU's 2009 season by catching 89 passes for 1,120 yards and 15 touchdowns, being the first Sooners receiver to lead the team in scoring, while also serving as a special punt returner averaging 15.9 yards with a score. He put up those numbers despite missing one game and most of another, and that's the problem. At only 178 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame, he can't take a pounding.
Best defensive player: Senior LB Travis Lewis ... or senior DE Jeremy Beal. Lewis has become the program's star linebacker of the moment with 253 tackles and 21 tackles for loss in his first two seasons. He's big, fast, tough and a consistent hitter with great range and big-time playmaking ability. But he might be overshadowed by Beal, a pass-rushing terror who followed up a strong 8.5-sack season by coming up with 11 sacks, 19 tackles for loss and 70 tackles. He has the potential to leave OU as the greatest pass rusher in school history.
Key player to a successful season: Landry Jones... again. While he was a bit spurty with six touchdown passes against Tulsa, four against Kansas State and five against Texas A&M, he came through in some key moments with a 418-yard, three-score performance in the win over Stanford in the Sun Bowl. While he threw 14 interceptions, five came in one game against Nebraska. Last year the team needed whatever it could get out of him after Bradford went down, but this year he'll be asked to be more of a playmaker and a strength. There's a ton of talent behind him, but there's no experience whatsoever and if he gets hurt or isn't good, the season is effectively over.
The season will be a success if ... OU wins the Big 12 title. This doesn't appear to be a national title-good Sooner team, but it'll be talented enough and strong enough to run the table and win the whole ball of wax. However, if OU can hold serve at home and can get by Texas, there's no reason it can't go to its fourth Big 12 championship game in five years and seventh in nine seasons.
Key game: Oct. 2 vs. Texas, of course. However, beyond the obvious, OU's biggest game might turn out to be at Texas A&M on Nov. 6. It comes at the time of year when a still-growing Sooners team might hit a wall on the road against a phenomenal offensive attack. With Texas Tech coming up the following week before going on the road to close out the regular season at Baylor and Oklahoma State, a loss in College Station might make for an interesting November.
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