NORMAN – When No. 4 Oklahoma heads out into the Sun Bowl for its season opener against UTEP tonight, it will be a vastly different Sooners squad than the one that dodged a falling overhead camera and won the Insight Bowl.
Bob Stoops will still be coaching from the sidelines for the 14th straight year and Landry Jones will once again be throwing passes, just as he has done for the past three seasons. But the cast of characters around them is far, far different than just eight months ago.
The team’s top rusher is back from a broken ankle, the receiving corps is almost entirely brand new, the offensive line has been shuffled around because of injuries and there’s not a proven tight end on the roster. On defense, four starters are gone to the NFL and four who remain are playing different positions. The two most experienced defensive tackles are both expected to be held out against the Miners.
Despite all that, the expectations haven’t changed. The Sooners start the season in the top 5 and as the preseason choice to win the Big 12 title for an eighth time.
But will they really that good?
“Who knows?” Stoops said. “You have to go earn it. You have to stay healthy. You have to get a break here or there. You have to play well. I feel like our guys have done that.
“Are we talented? I think in today’s college football everybody is pretty similar. The top 10, 15 or 20 teams, there’s not a whole lot of difference. Usually what makes a difference moreso than talent is who has a little more experience with the talent.”
The Sooners have that experience in places, but also plenty of newcomers. The go-to receiver at the start of last season was All-American Ryan Broyles, on his way to catching the most passes in NCAA history. This season begins with only one receiver – Kenny Stills – who has ever caught a pass for the Sooners.
Penn State transfer Justin Brown and freshmen Trey Metoyer, Sterling Shepard and Durron Neal are some of the new targets for Jones.
Up front, the offensive line has spent training camp adjusting after center Ben Habern brought an early end to his injury-plagued career and guard Tyler Evans suffered a season-ending knee injury. Gabe Ikard moved from guard to center, and the right side of the line has a new look with Bronson Irwin and Daryl Williams with just one career start among the two of them.
The defense, forged behind the closed gates at practice, could be vastly different. Stoops brought in his brother, Mike, to try and re-create the defenses of the early 2000s when Oklahoma won one national title and played for another.
“We’re a different team than we were a year ago,” said Mike Stoops, the defensive coordinator. “We’ve got to forget, we’ve got to have a short memory. We’re concentrating on what we need to do this year in the scheme.”
No. 4 OU vs. Texas-El Paso
Where: El Paso, Texas
Time: 9:30 p.m.
TV: Fox Sports Oklahoma