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August 6, 2010
The Oklahoma Sooners rarely lose in Norman. Indeed, they rarely lose at all.
That's why last season's 8-5 record was almost shocking.
But this season, quarterback Landry Jones now has a valuable year of experience, the offensive line now has five healthy bodies and the defense still has E Jeremy Beal, LB Travis Lewis and FS Quinton Carter, a trio of All-Big 12 performers.
Clearly, the Sooners have the components to make a strong run at a seventh Big 12 championship under coach Bob Stoops. And if an effective complement to dynamic WR Ryan Broyles emerges and new starters in the defensive line and secondary play well, the Sooners could make a run at even more.
THE SCHEME: The Sooners have one of the more diversified attacks in the nation. Their base is a three-receiver set, and they liberally have sprinkled in elements of the spread. OU runs a no-huddle attack and sometimes uses a fullback.
STAR POWER: Junior WR Ryan Broyles is perhaps the greatest big-play threat in the nation. He's coming a stellar sophomore season in which he posted seven plays that covered at least 40 yards. He finished with 89 catches for 1,120 yards and 15 touchdowns. He's also an excellent punt returner.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The Sooners need a complementary receiver to Broyles and freshman Kenny Stills could fill that role. A highly regarded recruit, he enrolled early and starred in spring drills. He has good size, can run and quickly grasped the offense.
STRONGEST AREA: As usual, OU is well-stocked at running back. Speedy senior DeMarco Murray has gained more than 700 yards in each of his three previous seasons despite having to share the rushing load. This season, he may share carries with sophomore Jermie Calhoun, a highly rated recruit two years ago who could be due for a breakout season. Freshmen Roy Finch and Brennan Clay also have tremendous potential.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Sooners need a receiver or two to take coverage away from Broyles, who had twice as many catches as any other OU receiver last season. Tight end is an area of concern, too.
THE SCHEME: Oklahoma uses a 4-3 base but often go to a 4-2-5 nickel package, with the strongside linebacker sometimes playing a safety role.
STAR POWER: Junior Travis Lewis is one of the best linebackers in the nation. He has 253 career tackles, including 21.5 tackles for loss. He has good instincts, can run and packs a wallop. Senior E Jeremy Beal is among the best pass rushers in the country. He has 20.5 career sacks, including 11 last season. He also had 19 tackles for loss and 70 total tackles in '09.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman LB Tom Wort was a heralded recruit who was expected to get into the playing rotation last season. But he tore an ACL during two-a-days and had to sit out the year. Healthy again, he's projected to start in the middle.
STRONGEST AREA: Even though Lewis is the only full-time returning starter at linebacker, the Sooners are solid there. Joining Lewis, a two-time All-Big 12 selection, is Ronnell Lewis, who shares a surname and the ability to deliver punishing hits. Ronnell Lewis is coming off an exceptional performance in the Sun Bowl victory over Stanford. Wort projects as a solid starter in the middle, and the Sooners also have former starter Austin Box, who has overcome injuries, too.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There is a measure of uncertainty in the line's interior; the Sooners lost All-America T Gerald McCoy, a first-round selection in the NFL draft. His place in the starting lineup will be filled by little-used sophomore Jamarkus McFarland. Adrian Taylor returns at the other tackle spot, but he's trying to come back from a grisly broken ankle injury suffered in the bowl game.
Typically, the Sooners are strong on kick returns and this season will be no different. Broyles is among the country's elite punt returners after averaging 15.9 yards on 31 attempts a year ago. Backup RB Mossis Madu is good on kickoff returns, and the Sooners could be even more dangerous in that area with Murray, who returned kickoffs earlier in his career. That's not likely to happen even though Murray has indicated he'd like to resume that role. Sophomore P Tress Way is a Ray Guy Award candidate; last season, he was third in the nation with a 45.7-yard average. Kicking is a concern. Jimmy Stevens and Patrick O'Hara were a combined 5-of-10 from beyond 30 yards last season, and O'Hara hit the only field goal of more than 40 yards. The coverage units were among the best in the nation; OU allowed just 30 yards on 17 punt returns.
Oklahoma hopes to extend its home-field winning streak to 36 this season, but that will require beating Florida State, Air Force and Texas Tech. Not easy chores there. Neither is a non-conference trip to face defending Big East champion Cincinnati to end September. The Sooners also face potentially challenging road games against Missouri, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. But, as usual, their greatest test will be the Red River Shootout against Texas, which has won four of the past five over the Sooners.
The Sooners are coming off a substandard (for them) eight-win season, which means everyone else in the Big 12 should beware. The other two times OU failed to reach a double-digit victory total under coach Bob Stoops (1999 and 2005), it rebounded to win the conference championship the next season. It'll be no surprise if that trend continues. QB Landry Jones was predictably inconsistent as a freshman starter but still passed for nearly 3,200 yards. He'll be better with a year's experience. The offensive line will also be improved just by being healthy. The unit was wracked by injuries in '09. The defensive unit lost some key personnel, but still has plenty of elite talent on hand. The Sooners will be a threat to post their fourth Big 12 championship in five years. And if a few new starters play at a high level OU could be in the national championship picture.
Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.