by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Oklahoma is a consensus top-five team heading into the start of the 2011 season. Moreover, the disappearance of the Big XII title game and the inauguration of a Big Ten championship contest would seem to shorten the course for the Sooners to reach the BCS title game while likely adding a hurdle in the path of the upcoming Big Ten champ. No doubt Oklahoma is loaded on offense. But questions remain as to whether the Sooners have the defensive wherewithal, leadership and resolve to make it to New Orleans next January 9.

Like so many teams in Norman since Bob Stoops arrived 12 years ago, the 2011 version is loaded in terms of offensive pyrotechnics, even after the loss of long-time offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson (new HC at Indiana). The defending Big XII champs return now-mature QB Landry Jones (65.6%, 38 TDs, 12 ints., 4718 YP), who won the Sammy Baugh Award LY as the nation’s top passer. Now in third year starting, Jones says he is much more comfortable at the controls of OU’s wide-open attack (37 ppg), especially on the road, and also in big games. His targets are arguably the best group in the nation, including prolific sr. Ryan Broyles (131 recs., 1622 yards, 14 TDs in 2010), soph speedster Kenny Stills (61 recs.), lanky 6-4 sr. Dejuan Miller (only 6 games LY due to a knee injury), and sr. TE James Hanna (7 TDC). RS frosh Justin McCray was a five-star recruit in 2010 who’s waiting for his turn.

The OL returns four starters, including jr. C Ben Habern and rapidly-developing LG Gabe Ikard. However, the lack of consistency in the Oklahoma ground game has caused problems at times, including last season, when the Sooners were 83rd in the nation in rushing and picked up a measly 3.3 ypc. With versatile RB DeMarco Murray having moved on to the NFL, Stoops is counting on 5-8 soph scatback Roy Finch (398 YR in 2011) and true frosh Brandon Williams to provide a quick-strike overland complement. Not that it means anything until September, but some of Williams’ teammates raved about the early enrollee’s burst and punch in spring practice, and some OU insiders (biased toward the Crimson and Cream, of course) boldly predict the 190-pound Williams will be a better frosh RB than Texas’ highly-regarded Malcolm Brown. Still, an improvement of LY’s sometimes balky ground game would seem to be essential if the Sooners are going to seriously challenge for the big prize.

An improvement would also seem necessary on defense after Oklahoma was only 58th vs. the run, 51st vs. the pass, and 53rd in total defense last season, failing to stop the offenses of Missouri and Texas A&M on the road, and nearly blowing a big lead at Cincinnati. One has the notion that the likes of a defense-first coach such as Nick Saban would not consider one of his teams to be a serious national contender if it had such shortcomings. Sr. LB Trey Lewis, who has led the team in tackles in each of the last three years, boasts that his team restocks with excellent athletes year after year. While that might be true, it is also a fact that those athletes preceding Lewis on defense have suffered critical breakdowns in many big games over the past decade. Moreover, OU lost sr. starting MLB Austin Box to a tragic death in May. There are some bright spots, with quick soph LB Corey Nelson starring in spring and sr. CB Jamell Fleming (5 ints. LY) apparently regaining his academic eligibility in July. Hybrid OLB/N-back Tony Jefferson was co-defensive freshman of the year in the Big XII. And Lewis is right when he says Stoops always emphasizes speed, especially in the secondary. How effectively he has deployed that speed in recent years has raised some questions.

Sr. PK Jimmy Stevens, erratic for much of his career, steadied last season when hitting 19 of 23 FG attempts (but all from fewer than 50 yards).

Summary...Passing the Sooners have. Also, a 36-game winning streak in Norman, the longest home skein working in college football. A September visit to Florida State and a November home game against rising A&M figure to be stern tests. And so do end-of-the-season visits to offensively-potent Baylor and Oklahoma State. And let’s remember that Oklahoma had lost five straight BCS bowl games until last season’s 48-20 virtual walkover over very weak Big East representative Connecticut in the Fiesta Bowl. Three of those BCS bowl game defeats were of a defensively-embarrassing nature (55-19 to Southern Cal, 43-42 in OT to Boise State, and 48-28 to West Virginia), often with Stoops’ stoppers seemingly mystified. Even with QB Landry Jones now a more careful veteran, are the Sooners to be trusted on defense in a big game, should the opportunity present itself? Can the pass-happy OU offense run the ball well enough in crunch time? While the Sooners are properly favored to win the shrunken Big XII this season, Stoops still has something to prove before regaining his previous moniker of “Big Game Bob.”

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