When No. 3 ranked Oklahoma takes the field Saturday evening to begin their national title defense, they won't be facing your average season-opening cupcake opponent.
Oklahoma won't be lining up against division II opponents like Indiana State, or lower-tier conference opponents such as UTEP, like they have the last two seasons.
This season, the Sooners will open up with a very dangerous Atlantic Coast Conference opponent in North Carolina.
"They're a definitely a team that has personnel that rates up with all the upper teams of the Big 12 conference," said Oklahoma Co-Defensive Coordinator Mike Stoops during Tuesday's weekly press conference.
"I think playing a team such as North Carolina this early in the season helped us, in a lot of ways in our preparation this summer. Heading into preseason camp I think our players did an unbelievable job preparing. Coach Schmidt did an unbelievable job getting our team prepared for this heat and to play winning football hopefully Saturday evening."
The Tar Heels will arrive in Norman coming of a not-so-bad 6-5 season with new Head Coach John Bunting, a new attitude and two of college footballs' best gamebreakers in Ronald Curry and Julius Peppers, one for each side of the ball.
Offensively, the Tar Heels attack returns five starters from last year's team and will start and finish with their multi-talented quarterback Ronald Curry. Curry, who was a more sought-after prospect coming out of high school than No. 1 NFL Draft pick Michael Vick in 1998, has failed to live up to the hype that followed him from Hampton, Va. and has been slowed during his career by injuries.
When asked what concerned him the most about UNC's offense, Mike Stoops quickly pointed out Curry's experience and receivers.
"With him (Curry) being a fourth-year senior coming into this environment, that's the kind of guy you want to have. His ability to get the ball to the wide receivers and his ability to run would the thing that we'll have to be real conscious of."
The versatile quarterback, who was also the starting point guard on North Carolina's basketball team last season, began to show some life last year after setting a school record for total offense after completing over 50 percent of his passes for 2,325 yards and rushing for 351.
"Curry presents a lot problems in the fact that he's very athletic. He runs well and scrambles well," said Mike Stoops of the elusive Curry.
"Those types of quarterbacks, as a defensive coordinator, can give you a real problems and we just have to be real conscious of him. I would imagine he's going to handle the ball a considerable amount."
When Curry isn't running with the ball or handing it off to sophomore tailback Willie Parker, he likes to throw the deep ball to to a talented group of receivers led by junior Bosley Allen and senior Kory Bailey.
"The strength of there team we feel lies in Curry and their wide receives. They're probably the deepest position they have," said Stoops of UNC's pass-catchers.
"They have three wide receivers back that played a great deal last year. So those will be the guys we'll definitely concentrate on."
Allen, who led the Tar Heels in receiving last year and is also a dangerous threat returning kick-offs, was fifth in the ACC a season ago in receiving yards per game with a 57.6 average after catching 40 passes for 634 yards including four touchdowns. Bailey is another deep threat from the Tar Heel receiving corp and was just behind Allen statistically last season hauling in 32 balls for 552 yards.
If there's one spot on North Carolina's offense that the Sooners can exploit it should be UNC's offensive line. The Tar Heels return only one starter with starting experience from last years unit in center Adam Metts.
Defensively, the Tar Heels will be very strong on the defensive line led by consensus preseason All-American defensive end Julius Peppers. Like Curry, Peppers is an outstanding athlete who also played basketball at UNC, but has decided to give up on the hardwood to pursue making a living wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks. And he seems to do that very well leading the nation last season with 15 sacks.
"I'm sure Coach Mangino knows that we'll definitely have our hands full with him and we'll have to be conscious of where he's coming from. For our offense to be successful, I would think we would have to contain Peppers and hope he's not disrupting everything in the backfield," said Stoops.
"He's a great player. Shows great size, speed — he's everything you want in a defensive end. He's by far their best player on defense."
Not only is Peppers the best player on UNC's defense, he's probably the best player in the country and could go as high as the top pick in next year's NFL draft.
And while its Peppers' duty to rush off the corner and get to the quarterback, the Tar Heels have a solid duo of tackles in senior Ryan Sims and junior Will Chapman inside to stuff the run.
Sims was fourth on the team in sacks last year (6) while recording 52 total tackles on the season, nine for a loss, while Chapman recorded 31 total tackles, 2.5 sacks and eight tackles for a loss a in a backup role.
Perhaps one of UNC's strengths on defense is in the secondary where they return three starters led by senior cornerback Errol Hood. Hood led a Tar Heel's secondary, that only intercepted six passes a year ago, in int's last season with two, and was seventh on the team in tackles with 54.
One of the most interesting factors when trying to handicap this matchup is the fact that the Sooners have the unenviable task of preparing for a team with a new head coach and coordinators that have yet to play a game with their new system.
"The thing that's hard about preparing for North Carolina is that we have to look at so many different tapes on their coordinators, where they've been and what type of offense or defense they're going to run, because they've never played a game," said Stoops.
"That makes it a little more difficult for us than for them. I think they have a pretty good idea what they're going to see from us. That could give them a little bit of advantage knowing, but I think us being in our system for two years equals it's way out. Our players are starting their third year in our system. In the past three years I don't think there is anything offensively or defensively we haven't seen."
But regardless of the unknown factor surrounding UNC's offensive and defensive schemes, Stoops said the Sooners will be prepared for anything come Saturday night.
"Coach Mangino will tell you about all of the different teams he had to look at to prepare for this team. The defensive coordinator (John Tenuta) is from one place, Bunting is from another place. They've got a guy from Okie State that's on the staff coaching the linebackers. You've got to look at all those variables. Offensively, we feel like we have a better fix because Coach Tranquill (offensive coordinator) came from Virginia and has been running that system there so we looked at all 11 games from last year and feel comfortable in what we think they're going to try and attack us with," said Stoops.
"In the past three years I don't think there is anything defensively we haven't seen. I think Coach Mangino will tell you he's seen every front, coverage and blitz known to man. If they want use bits and pieces of where all of those coordinators have been — I know our offense will be prepared for it all."
"This is a great opening game for our team. It will be a great challenge."
Oklahoma leads the all-time series over North Carolina by a 6-0 mark. The Sooners are 3-0 against the Tar Heels in Norman.
North Carolina and Oklahoma first met in the 1949 Sugar Bowl (1948 season). The game was legendary Sooner coach Bud Wilkinson's first bowl game. The Sooners won 14-6.
The Sooners entered the 1988 year ranked No. 3 in the nation and defeated the Tar Heels 28-0. OU also defeated UNC 28-0 in the teams last meeting in Norman in 1987.
OU in season openers
The Sooners are 80-20-6 all-time in season openers and 40-7-5 in openers at Owen Field. The Sooners' last season opening loss in Norman came at the hands of TCU (20-7) in 1996.
Oklahoma begins the year ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 1991 and it's their highest preseason ranking since they began the 1987 season at No. 1 in the AP poll.
OU enters Saturday's contest with UNC with a 13-game home winning streak, as well as the nations longest winning streak with 13 consecutive wins. The Sooners are 11-0 at home under Bob Stoops.
UNC against the defending champs
Since 1950, Carolina has faced the defending national champion on nine occasions, including a game in 1956 against Oklahoma when the Sooners were coming off a championship season in 1955. Carolina lost that game, 36-0, in Norman.
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