All five Tide starters return along the offensive front, and four of them are being pushed for post-season honors. But press clippings count for nothing on the playing field. "We feel like our kids up front are talented," Koenning acknowledged. "But they have to get out there and show us that they can do it against a bunch like this."
Oklahoma is ranked No. 2 in the nation, and without a doubt defense is the strength of their team. "They're very talented, and they benefit from great coaching," Koenning said. "I've been very impressed with what they do. Their kids play hard and get after the football. They have excellent, excellent team speed. Their speed and the way they get to the football is very impressive. Everybody's back from last year except basically their linebackers and the safety. And those guys (Rocky Calmus and Roy Williams) went in the NFL draft.
"They've got a veteran defense and they're playing well."
Since the arrival of Bob Stoops, Oklahoma recruiting has been ranked among the best in the nation. And when they need immediate help, the Sooner staff is willing to go the JUCO route. Koenning explained, "They've done a nice job in recruiting. They've done a nice job in getting the people in the right places. They've got two junior-college kids (Pasha Jackson and Lance Mitchell) that came in playing linebacker for them."
The Sooner D-Line is both big and mobile. And All-America candidate Tommie Harris is the best of the bunch. "He is good player," Koenning acknowledged. "He plays with great leverage and is always around the football.
"I wish I could say it was only him, but it's their whole defense that is around the football. It's like a swarming bunch of bees. They attack that honey."
Derrick Strait and Andre Woolfolk return at cornerback. Woolfolk is a converted wideout that the Sooner coaches believe will be very good. "They've got some of the best cornerbacks around," Koenning said. "They've got a fine defense. It's very talented and very good."
If you get the feeling that Koenning is impressed with the Sooner defense, you'd be right. But he's not above a bit of ‘coach-speak,' poor-mouthing his own team while being careful not to give the other guys any locker-room quotes. "We're not ready to throw our hands up," he said with a smile. "We compliment the people that we play. This is a great challenge for us this week, and I'm excited to see what's going to happen."
The Sooner defense across the board is blazing fast, but it's a football axiom that the way to attack speed is to run right at it. Koenning explained, "Each week you look at what the next team does, and you direct your game plan toward that. We'll put our kids in the best place to make plays."
And what about blocking assignments? "You've got to catch him first," Koenning replied with a laugh. "We'll put our guys in a position by alignments to get them blocked. We're not just going to say, ‘Hey, he's way out there. Go get him.' We'll be in formations where they can make those blocks."
"You have to be more concerned with match-ups," Koenning continued. "You don't want to put the worst kid on the best kid. Mainly I mean experience. If you have a kid that's played a lot, then you want to put him in a situation where he can handle the pressure."
Koenning had praise for his receiving corps and the job they did in the season-opener versus MTSU. "They did a nice job last week. They were really active downfield on their blocks. They were a bright spot in our passing game. We feel comfortable with all our receivers. It's not just one guy. They're all doing a fine job. They just need to keep building on what they're doing. But we're heading in the right direction."
When facing a speedy defense, a smart quarterback capable of making split-second decisions is key. And last week versus the Blue Raiders Tyler Watts performed very well. "In the passing game Tyler was excellent," Koenning said. "He threw one ball that was a bad throw, but the rest of the time his decision-making process was good. We did some things in the passing game that maxed up the protection to give him a little more time to throw deeper balls. He did a nice job. We were very pleased with his performance."
Expect the Bama offense to rely on veteran players like Watts, Theo Sanders, Shaud Williams and Ahmaad Galloway. "There's no doubt that if you have to go against one of the best defenses in the country, then an experienced guy at quarterback helps," Koenning explained. "Experience plays a large part. What you find out in these games is you kind of want to turn them loose and let them play. Put him in the right position, then we'll see how he does."
Koenning understands that his team enters Saturday's game a heavy underdog. But frankly, he relishes the role.
"When you're playing football, these are the games you look forward to. The Oklahomas, the Tennessees--all the SEC games."