The kids in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes football camp at the Sooners' practice field peppered the largest counselor with the same question: What in the world happened in the Orange Bowl against USC? 55--19? "Everybody and their grandmother has asked me that," says 6'5", 277-pound defensive tackle Carl Pendleton, who worked at the camp. "Things went wrong for us on so many levels. Bottom line, we just got beat. But we're excited to get back out there. We're a new team with a lot of new players."
Among the Sooners' departures were several key players in the last two national championship games: quarterback Jason White, wideouts Mark Clayton and Mark Bradley, defensive lineman Dan Cody and safety Donte Nicholson. This will be the most inexperienced Oklahoma team since 2000, coach Bob Stoops's second year in Norman, when he had 23 freshmen and sophomores on his two-deep chart. Yet that squad won the national title, and Stoops thinks he has the talent--albeit largely unproven (24 freshmen and sophomores are on this year's two-deep)--to earn a second straight Big 12 crown and third straight BCS title game berth.
The most heated position battle is at quarterback, among junior Paul Thompson, sophomore Tommy Grady and redshirt freshman Rhett Bomar. All three were prize recruits, and all have stronger arms than White's. Whoever lines up under center, he'll be calling running back Adrian Peterson's number early and often. Last year Peterson rushed for an NCAA freshman-record 1,925 yards and was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. He's added 10 pounds of muscle to his 6'2" frame, bulking up to 220 pounds--"He just looks a lot bigger," says Stoops--and will play a larger role in the passing game. (He had only five receptions in 2004.)
"We've used the USC game as motivation all summer when we've been working out," says senior linebacker Clint Ingram. "We have some new faces, but trust me: We've got as good a shot as anyone to get back to the big show." --Lars Anderson
2004 RECORD 12--1 (8--0, 1st in Big 12 South)
FINAL AP RANK 3 RETURNING STARTERS 15
KEY RETURNEES (2004 stats)
RB Adrian Peterson (Soph.) Broke Billy Sims's OU season rushing record
WR Travis Wilson (Sr.) More TD catches (11) than Mark Clayton (8)
LB Rufus Alexander (Jr.) 74 tackles, three forced fumbles top returnees
FB J.D. Runnels (Sr.) Only one career carry but 31 catches, 4 TDs
Weeks that the Sooners have been ranked No. 1 in the 69 years of the AP poll. Oklahoma and Notre Dame are tied for most weeks at the top.
Before the Orange Bowl, Sooners defensive end Larry Birdine said USC was a "one-and-a-half-man team" and called Matt Leinart overrated. But don't judge the 6'4", 258-pound junior by his mouth. A pass-rush demon, Birdine had seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss despite being part of a three-man rotation. Those numbers will jump as he becomes a starter.
Sept. 3 TCU
17 at UCLA
Oct. 1 KANSAS STATE
8 vs. Texas*
15 vs. Kansas**
29 at Nebraska
Nov. 12 TEXAS A&M
19 at Texas Tech
26 OKLAHOMA STATE
**at Kansas City
JAMES D. SMITH/ICON SMI
Big 12 defenses will see even more of Peterson, as the bulked-up sophomore takes center stage in Norman.