January 17, 2011
What you'll be reading about for the next seven months.
The field was wide open enough before the 2010 season to entice a rogue prognosticator or two to get on the Oklahoma bandwagon as a darkhorse national title pick, which was a little optimistic, as it turns out. If they're willing to hold their ground this year, though, at least they can say they beat the crowd: As soon as the confetti hit the ground on Auburn's unlikely run to the BCS Championship last week, everybody and their mother – and their mother's bookie – started falling all over themselves in the rush to proclaim Oklahoma the preseason No. 1 for 2011. SEC homers aside, the knee-jerk consensus is a clean sweep for the Sooners.
That's in part because the Sooners got the best draft news this side of Stanford when receiver Ryan Broyles and Travis Lewis both elected to return for their senior seasons, with the national championship explicitly in their sights. But Oklahoma easily passes the strictures of the generic Preseason No. 1 Checklist:
• Track record of winning/significantly competing for a national championship in recent memory: Check. The Sooners won the BCS title with four wins over top-10 teams in 2000, and were back in the championship game in 2003, 2004 and 2008. As far as getting there, they've owned the Big 12, with four of the last five and seven of the last 11 conference championships.
• "Momentum" off an impressive bowl win: Check. Oklahoma screwed around a bit but was never seriously threatened in its 48-20 Fiesta Bowl beatdown of the Big East's token BCS lamb, UConn, snapping a five-game BCS losing streak since 2003. The OU offense easily eclipsed 450 yards for the ninth time in 14 games, and the defense held the Husky offense out of the end zone entirely.
• Returning starter at quarterback: Check. Landry Jones returns for his third season as the full-time slinger in OU's up-tempo attack, after launching more passes than any other quarterback in the country as a sophomore, for more yards and more touchdowns than anyone except Hawaii's Bryant Moniz. He could conceivable break Sam Bradford's school record for career passing yards in the first game.
• Resident big-play threat: Check. Jones gets back not only Broyles, a consensus All-American in '10 after hauling in a national-best 131 catches for 1,622 yards, but also sophomore-to-be Kenny Stills, who lived up to the recruiting hype as one of the top freshman threats in the country. Add senior Dejuan Miller, a starter prior to a season-ending knee injury at midseason, and you can go ahead and book another top-five assault through the air.
• "Veteran leadership": Check. In all, the Sooners return 17 of 22 starters from the Fiesta Bowl triumph, including fourth-fifths of the offensive line and six of the front seven on defense, and not including a handful of other regulars and sometime-starters who have seen the field on a consistent basis. Roughly half the first-teamers in the fall will be in their third year together as starters, looking to cash in on the growing pains of 2009.
Of course, instant injuries to stars Sam Bradford and Jermaine Gresham derailed high hopes for that season, too, and it's not like the Sooners won't be plugging a few holes – four of them, specifically, one for each of the first-team All-Big 12 picks departing Norman this spring. That exodus includes running back DeMarco Murray, who leaves as the school's all-time leading scorer with no remotely proven up-and-comer in his wake, and sack leader Jeremy Beal.
Compared to the issues facing the other viable contenders – Oregon loses almost everyone on both lines, Stanford loses Jim Harbaugh, Ohio State loses the core of its offense for almost half the regular season, Auburn loses everyone, LSU is still quarterbacked by Jordan Jefferson, etc. – maybe Roy Finch and Jermie Calhoun give Oklahoma a better chance of replacing Murray's underrated production than, say, Alabama does of compensating for the exit of its leading passer, rusher, receiver and pass rusher in one fell swoop. At any rate, you know the drill: Let the year of the Sooner begin.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.