Expectations are high at Oklahoma, so that usually means that even an 11-2 season capped by a BCS bowl win won’t escape at least a tinge of criticism.
In 2013, it was the Sooners’ inconsistency. Both of their losses — 36-20 to Texas and 42-12 to Baylor — were largely non-contests. And the quarterback situation, with struggles from Trevor Knight and Blake Bell, was an up and down affair.
And yet, things blended perfectly in a 45-31 victory over defending national champion Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Knight was nearly flawless, and the Oklahoma defense forced the Crimson Tide to five turnovers.
But how far can the Sooners’ Sugar Bowl momentum carry them into 2014?
Oklahoma arrived at Day 2 of the Big 12 Media Days on Tuesday as the preseason favorite to win the conference, edging last year’s league winner, Baylor. Knight, uncertain of his future less than a year ago, appears poised to be the starting quarterback. And the defense, dubbed “controlled chaos” by safety Julian Wilson, returns Wilson’s fellow senior starters Chuka Ndulue and Geneo Grissom, among others.
The Alabama victory injected Oklahoma with confidence, and it the paid off for the Sooners with recruits.
“In the end, we were fortunate that we were able to build, finish recruiting in a really positive way,” coach Bob Stoops said. “I think [beating Alabama] really did give us a boost in the last week or two of recruiting.”
The Sooners landed 10 commitments for the 2014 class after the Alabama win, including Rivals five-star running back Joe Mixon and four-star defensive back Steven Parker. And the victory on the big state was an experience for younger players, such as then-freshmen defenders Dominique Alexander and Keller Central product Zack Sanchez. But the goal for Oklahoma was higher than January’s bowl win.
“Those guys stepped into their roles,” Grissom said. “But we’re looking to move on from it, build off of it. We’re looking for a national championship this year.”
Knight, who battled injury and competition with Bell last season, played the best game of his career against the Crimson Tide, completing 32-of-44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns. But the sophomore from San Antonio said that performance simply got him to the starting line.
“It was fun to play like that and fun to get a big win, but now that’s the baseline,” Knight said. “That’s the foundation.”
Ultimately, the Sooners’ 2014 campaign should come down to what Knight does with that foundation, said Trevor Matich, an ESPN analyst at Tuesday’s media session. Matich reviewed tape of the of the Sugar Bowl with Stoops earlier in the off-season and left impressed by two things: Knight’s repeated accuracy, and Oklahoma’s speed on defense.
Matich said those aspects should complement each other in 2014, as Knight seemingly has more confidence, and the Sooners’ secondary speed can slow the Big 12’s slew of pass-happy offenses.
“All of a sudden, that bucket of bolts was assembled and torqued down into that sports car for the Sugar Bowl, and it did not surprise Bob Stoops that [Knight] was that accurate and that decisive,” Matich said. “The big question nationally is, can he be that guy in every game? Stoops thinks that he is that guy that he was in the Sugar Bowl, and I don’t doubt it.”
Coach: Bob Stoops (16th year, 160-39)
2013 record: 11-2
Season opener: Aug. 30 vs. Louisiana Tech
Key issues: Oklahoma returns 44 letterman from a team that finished second in the Big 12. … The Sooners led the league in total defense, allowing 350.2 yards a game. … OU must fill several holes, most noticeably at running back. The options are sophomores Keith Ford, Alex Ross and David Smith. … Former QB Blake Bell will see action solely at tight end, where Stoops said he is a natural fit..
Tarrant area ties: Oklahoma has six players who call the area home: Senior Rashad Favors (Fort Worth Dunbar) is in the mix at defensive end, junior Nila Kasitati (Euless Trinity) will be in the offensive line rotation and Zack Sanchez (Keller Centeral) is a preseason all-Big 12 selection at defensive back.