A year after opening as the consensus #1 ranked team in the country, Oklahoma begins 2012 with similar hype at #4. And while Bob Stoops refrained from hinting at national title expectations at Big 12 media day this year, the expectations haven't changed in Norman.
The Sooner offense began as a strength last year before struggling to find consistency without Ryan Broyles in the lineup. They hung 55 on a solid Texas defense and played well in their losses (except for the Oklahoma State shellacking), but struggled in critical moments. While the numbers were still there, Landry Jones struggled to be as consistent without his number one receiver.
As the season progressed, his draft stock slid a little as his interceptions rose and brought him back to Norman for one more season. It will be the conclusion one of the more interesting careers in recent memory. He teased Sooner fans with his own potential from the first time he took the field as a freshman in place of an injured Sam Bradford, but he needs to take the next step to cement his legacy as one of OU's greats.
His development has been somewhat uneven, but Jones is expected to be one of the top signal callers in the country this season. To solidify his status as a first-round prospect and keep OU in the national title hunt, he'll have to become a more efficient passer and a more consistent decision maker. As evidenced by his struggles without his top target last year, Jones needs to make his progressions more quickly. Part of that is a pre-snap read of the defense and part of it is being able to see the field better. If he can do that, improve his accuracy and have his receivers emerge, the offense has the potential be one of the more explosive and complete units in the country.
The big question mark this year on is a surprising one -- the offensive line. The Sooners lost their three-year starting center to retirement, the 12th best guard recruit in the country to OU being "not for [him]," and a starter at offensive guard to a torn ACL. And the season is still almost a month away.
On one hand, you have to expect that the OU football machine has the bodies to replace what they've lost. On the other, continuity will have to develop in a hurry. Down two starters so early doesn't bode well for a team that has been hurt by injuries to key players over the last several years. As Bob Stoops stays positive, he has to hope his team's bad luck as run out early this season.
But on the defensive side of the ball, the problems went a lot further than injuries last year. Things were thrown into flux early in the season by injuries, but the unit responded ... until they ran into the mighty Red Raiders of Texas Tech. The secondary, in particular, struggled mightily in Sooner losses to Baylor and Oklahoma State. They were not unique in their struggles in those two games against first round quarterbacks, but the unit must improve with a conference that has top quarterbacks at West Virginia and TCU. There is good news -- Mike Stoops is back.
The former Arizona head coach returned to guide his brother's defense this year and inherited a unit that underperformed at times last year. Stoops is moving his pieces around this year, considering moving Tony Jefferson to safety full time from cornerback and looking for someone to fill in at the nickel back slot.
As with every position on the roster, the defense doesn't lack high-level athletes, but they seemed hesitant, a step slow and almost lost at times last year. If Mike Stoops can bring back the aggressive style he brought to the defensive side of the ball during his first stint as OU's defensive guru, those athletes should be flying around the field and making the plays they didn't always make last year.
It's the first season under a new defensive coordinator, the team's number one receiver is gone, and the injury bug is already biting hard. But talent abounds, Landry Jones is still at the helm, and Bob Stoops and his staff are some of the best in the country. The schedule isn't a killer, but two of the last three games of the season are road games against West Virginia (preseason #11) and TCU (#17). That said, the Sooner faithful shouldn't be faulted if a projected 11-1 regular season sounds disappointing.