Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jason White returns to trigger Oklahoma's balanced offense, which scored more than 50 points on seven occasions last season. He tossed 40 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions in 2003, but his health is seemingly more fragile than Jessica Simpson's IQ.
After a combined 135 yards rushing in its two losses last season (42 of which came on one play vs. Kansas State), OU will open the season with junior Kejuan Jones (925 yds, 13 TDs) as its starting tailback. But expect true freshman Adrian Peterson, the nation's top recruit according to some, to make his presence known immediately and for him to quickly become the team's workhorse.
OU's starting offensive line features a combined 129 starts and is anchored by 6-foot-6, 315-pound senior Jammal Brown, a likely first-round pick in next year's NFL Draft. But improvement is needed after surrendering 16 sacks in last season's final four games, compared to just 12 allowed in the first 10 games. Oklahoma's offense is loaded with weapons, but the offensive line will determine its success. They must keep White healthy and rejuvenate a run game that was stymied last season by seven- and eight-man defensive fronts.
OU will be hard pressed to match its defensive effort of allowing just 259.6 yards a game last season, third-best in the nation, with the losses of defensive tackle Tommie Harris, linebacker Teddy Lehman and cornerback Derrick Strait to the NFL. Yet the Sooner defense is by no means lacking its share of playmakers. OU will employ a 4-2-5 scheme that prides itself on being disruptive and forcing turnovers.
On the defensive line, seniors Dusty Dvoracek (seven sacks, 16 tackles for loss) and Lynn McGruder are the biggest stars in a rotation that could feature as many as five tackles, including highly coveted junior college transfer Remi Ayodele. Senior defensive end Dan Cody was dominant at times last season and led the Sooners with 10 sacks and a team-best 17 tackles for loss. Fellow senior Jonathan Jackson is also a force coming off the end (team-high 26 hurries).
At linebacker, senior Lance Mitchell is back after tearing the ACL in his left knee in OU's third game last season. He is a relentless tackler with an appetite for the football and steps into Lehman's middle linebacker position. Senior Gayron Allen will start at weakside linebacker with the strongside linebacker spot still up for grabs between juniors Russell Dennison and Clint Ingram.
Senior Antonio Perkins and junior Eric Bassey lurk in the secondary as starting cornerbacks joined by a big hitter in senior strong safety Donte Nicholson and junior free safety Brodney Pool, who led the team with seven interceptions last season. Junior college transfer Chijioke Onyenegecha could eventually challenge Bassey, but has struggled with academics and hamstring problems since arriving in January.
With former interim Nebraska coach Bo Pelini joining Brent Venables as co-defensive coordinator in the offseason, OU's defense will be as hard-hitting and aggressive this year as they have ever been under Stoops. But the Sooners must erase the defensive lapses that plagued them in their losses last year. That means better tackling, increased pressure up front and regaining the swagger that limited opponents to less than 10 points in six games in 2003.
Four straight home games to open the season will make the Sooners hungry for a Bevo roast Oct. 9 vs. Texas, but OU's first real test this season will be the following week at Kansas State. Trips to Oklahoma State and Texas A&M won't be easy either, but count on Oklahoma clinching its fourth straight Big 12 South title and for strength of schedule to keep them alive for the BCS championship game, even with a loss.