Strong finish sends Sooners to high expectations
NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — It's an all too familiar scene for Oklahoma fans eagerly awaiting the program's eighth national championship.
Just as the Sooners start getting hyped up as a favorite to win the title, a key player goes down with an injury before the team even gets to play a game. It happened two years ago when Oklahoma was loaded with talent after a loss in the BCS championship game, and it happened again this week when three-year starter Travis Lewis felt a pop in his left big toe.
Coach Bob Stoops called the loss of Lewis for up to eight weeks an "incredible blow." But the Sooners still hope to break the SEC's five-year stranglehold on the national championship and they have plenty of weapons to make a run at it.
Oklahoma has been picked by many as the favorite to bring home the crystal football after this season's BCS title game in New Orleans. The Sooners are ranked No. 1 in the USA Today coaches poll. The AP rankings come out on Aug. 20.
"Who doesn't want to be No. 1? Who doesn't want to be in first?" cornerback Jamell Fleming said. "There is a little nerve-wracking thing about it but we just try not to think about that.
"We're always expected to be high regardless. Year after year, that's how it is. We're not nervous. We're just embracing it and going out there to play."
The Sooners have eight starters back from an offense that ranked third in the nation in passing last season. That includes quarterback Landry Jones and All-American receiver Ryan Broyles, who led the nation with 131 receptions last season.
The most significant departure is DeMarco Murray, a third-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys after setting the school record with 65 career touchdowns.
There are seven starters back on defense, including Lewis, who is expected to return just before the Oct. 8 Red River Rivalry game against Texas.
"Having a target on our back has just helped us to work a lot harder. We know that we're going to get everyone's best shot every game, and that does nothing but excite us," receiver Kenny Stills said.
Back in 2009, Oklahoma was among the preseason favorites before NFL-bound tight end Jermaine Gresham was hurt in the run-up to the season opener against BYU. Sam Bradford, the Heisman Trophy winner from the previous year, was injured just before halftime in that game and the injuries eventually piled up to where practically everyone on the offense — and some on the defense — missed time.
Last year, the Sooners rebounded to reach the top spot in the BCS standings before losing at Missouri the next week.
High expectations are certainly nothing new for a program that won the title in 2001, Stoops' first season at the helm, and has played for it three times since then.
"We just want to go out there on Saturday and perform like the No. 1 team. ... We can be ranked No. 1 all we want and don't go out there on Saturday — like we were last year — and not play as the No. 1 team, and it really doesn't matter at the end of the day," Jones said.
Oklahoma carries a 36-game home winning streak into the season and eliminated concerns about its play on the road by winning at Oklahoma State, beating Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game and routing Connecticut in the Fiesta Bowl to finish last season.
Until then, Oklahoma had lost five straight BCS bowls — including games against LSU in the 2004 Sugar Bowl and Florida in the 2009 BCS title game, contributing to the SEC's streak.
"We, along with these other conferences, I think are all very similar in that the teams at the top are very good," Stoops said. "The teams in the middle are going to bowl games, they're pretty similar across the country, and you've got some teams that are struggling. And every league has it the same way.
"But, again, they've won that last game here for five years. So it's our job as other conferences or other schools to win it."
First, they must navigate a Big 12 schedule expanded to nine games after Nebraska and Colorado left the conference, plus a nonconference slate including a Sept. 17 visit to ACC favorite Florida State.
The Sooners will be playing for the memory of Austin Box, a linebacker and would-be starter who overdosed on prescription painkillers May 19.
"We're constantly reminded of him in very positive ways," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "He meant a lot and means a lot to this team and these players. He's very close to so many guys and ... it wouldn't be right to brush it to the side. We're trying to move forward and deal with it as best we can."