Oklahoma's win over Alabama in last season's Sugar Bowl showed what this year's Sooners could be. In overwhelming the Crimson Tide 45--31, the Sooners rolled out an aggressive defense and a passer with a knack for Johnny Manziel--like improvisation. Now they need to add consistency, beginning with redshirt sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight.
Before dissecting the Tide for 348 passing yards and four touchdowns, Knight struggled. He went 11 of 28 in a 34--0 win against Louisiana-Monroe in his first career game, and he was benched following a 10-of-20 outing in a 16--7 victory over West Virginia. But his performance against Bama—which sparked dark-horse Heisman Trophy talk—and another spring and summer of practice inspired enough confidence among the Sooners' staff that former starting quarterback Blake Bell was moved to tight end for his final year.
It will be up to Knight to get the most out of a young but promising group of skill players. The top playmaker will likely be junior Sterling Shepard, a speedy 5'10" wide receiver who will line up both in the slot and on the outside to maximize his big-play abilities. He's the only returning wideout who had more than 200 receiving yards in 2013. Redshirt sophomore running back Alex Ross, a former four-star prospect, should have a breakout year behind an offensive line that has four starters returning.
Oklahoma brings back nine defensive starters, led by junior end Charles Tapper and linebackers Dominique Alexander, Geneo Grissom and Eric Striker(right). While the Sooners have had issues slowing potent rushing attacks—Baylor and Texas each ran for 255 yards in routs of Oklahoma last fall—they have been dominant on passing downs. Coordinator Mike Stoops switched to a 3--4 alignment last season with a focus on getting after the quarterback, culminating in a seven-sack showing against the Tide. "You gotta eat your broccoli before you get your ice cream," Tapper says of rushing the passer. "We know if we eat our broccoli and stop the run, it's time to go have fun."
The Sooners have question marks, but they have all the pieces to reach the playoff, particularly in a wide-open Big 12.
Last fall junior defensive end Charles Tapper made 24 tackles and totaled 5½ sacks. It was only his fourth season playing football. At 6'4" and 281 pounds, with exceptional strength and athleticism, Tapper is an All--Big 12 talent with Pop Warner--level experience. Tapper showed glimpses of his potential by making six tackles at Oklahoma State and three tackles for loss against Kansas. With time and coaching, he could be a quarterback-wrecking force.
Though a Sept.13 matchup with Tennessee could be tricky, Oklahoma's nonconference slate shouldn't be a challenge—or earn much strength-of-schedule credit. The team's playoff destiny will ride on a tough stretch from Oct. 4 through Nov. 8 that includes showdowns at TCU and against Texas, then home dates against Kansas State and Baylor. If the Sooners escape with no more than one loss, a spot in the bracket will be in sight. They can nail it down against Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale, which comes after a bye.
SI POWER RANKINGS / By Rotowire.com
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SPECIAL TEAMS 85%
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
I've watched the Oklahoma-Alabama Sugar Bowl a bunch. Trevor Knight was so good: Anytime a player has that kind of success against a team like Alabama, it changes things. I'm sure the other players now believe in him in the locker room and when he takes charge in the huddle. His confidence is going to be really high. [Receiver] Sterling Shepard obviously is skilled, but they have some big shoes to fill when you start talking about their running backs and wideouts. They were able to put up some big numbers last year, and sometimes that can hurt you because the new guys try to do too much instead of just playing within the system.
I think they can control the line of scrimmage with the kind of guys they have playing defensive tackle and noseguard, allowing the athletes behind them to run free. And they have the premier linebacker—or whatever you want to call him—in the country in Eric Striker. He has one-on-one matchups with offensive tackles, and they can't block him. If Knight plays with the confidence I think he'll have, well, they're picked to win the Big 12 for a reason.
SUE OGROCKI/AP (KNIGHT)
DERICK HINGLE/USA TODAY SPORTS (TAPPER)
JOHN WILLIAMSON/AP (STRIKER)