Sooners ready to get back in national title hunt
DALLAS — Oklahoma has been favored to win the Big 12 before.
That's not a new thing.
The Sooners are also expected to compete for a national title this year. They haven't played in the national championship game since the 2008 season and haven't won the whole thing since the 2000 season.
By Oklahoma standards, that's been far too long.
"Those goals are still out there for us," said quarterback Landry Jones Monday during the Big 12's Media Days. "I think it's just a day-by-day process of taking care of the little things and being very attentive to all the details."
Oklahoma was following that course last season. The Sooners were 8-1, with only an upset to Texas Tech keeping them from being in the national title mix, when things went awry.
Injuries, particularly to star receiver Ryan Broyles and top running back Dominique Whaley caught up to the Sooners. They lost two of their last four, a 45-38 shootout with Baylor and a 44-10 whipping from Oklahoma State, and plummeted to a tie for third place in the Big 12.
Although Oklahoma finished things off with a sound win over Iowa in the Insight Bowl, the two losses down the stretch must still burn the Sooners.
"The past is the past, and we want to keep moving forward and focus on our our goals for this year, but it's hard for those things to go unnoticed," senior center Ben Habern said. "Definitely, we use it as motivation for having a better year this year and more focus this year. That's something that we're working on right now."
Habern is one part of a unit that is a big reason Oklahoma is back in the nation title conversation. The Sooners lost just one offensive lineman off their 2011 depth chart. Six of the returning offensive linemen have a combined 102 starts under their belts.
That offensive line gives some comfort to Jones, who turned down a chance at the NFL to start for a fourth season. Jones, a leading Heisman Trophy contender, got married in the offseason and also dropped a few pounds which should translate to better mobility.
"This is my last go-round of being a college athlete, of being an Oklahoma Sooner," Jones said. "There's definitely more focus this year than there ever has been."
Jones' production dipped at the end of last season when the injuries piled up, but coach Bob Stoops' confidence in him never wavered.
"I didn't ask him to have to improve on anything," Stoops said. "I asked about 10 guys around him that they needed to improve. Landry didn't struggle, the whole offense struggled."
While Broyles is gone, Kenny Stills inherits the job as the main playmaker at receiver. From all reports, incoming freshman receiver Trey Metoyer looks like he could be something special.
As for the running game, the Sooners are counting on Whaley making a complete recovery from his broken ankle.
"I don't think Dom even knows until you get the pads on and you've got to make that sudden cut," Stoops said. "He says he feels really good and is working well, but again, until you get out there, it's hard to say."
Stoops has a little more faith in his brother, Mike Stoops, who returns to take control of the defense. Mike Stoops, the former Arizona coach, was Oklahoma's co-defensive coordinator from 1999-2003 when the Sooners won a national title and played for another one.
Oklahoma's defense wasn't quite the same beast the last couple of seasons under Brent Venables, who left for the same position at Clemson. Mike Stoops' return is seen as a return to those fast, ferocious defenses of the first half of the Stoops era at Oklahoma.
"I do believe in the last couple of years, for whatever reason – and we've really looked at it – that our defense hasn't been quite as strong as what we've been used to," Stoops said. "So hopefully we can make fewer mental mistakes in some areas and be a little sharper in what we're doing to play more consistently and better defense. That's what Mike will be working hard on."
Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire