No. 13 Oklahoma
Conference: Big 12 South.
Coach: Bob Stoops, 75-16 in seven seasons.
2005: 8-4, 6-2 in Big 12 South, third.
Bowl: Defeated Oregon 17-14 in Holiday Bowl.
Why Oklahoma is No. 13: Instead of like, No. 5? Two words—Rhett Bomar. The suspension of the sophomore quarterback leaves a huge question mark in OU's offense.
Starters returning: 3 on offense, 7 on defense.
Key players: Junior RB Adrian Peterson, senior QB Paul Thompson, senior OT Chris Messner, senior LB Rufus Alexander, sophomore CB Reggie Smith, senior DE Larry Birdine.
Best-case scenario: Thompson survives his crash course in moving back from wide receiver to QB. If Thompson can supply some scrambling and complete a few passes to keep the defense honest, the Sooners' offense can still be effective.
Worst-case scenario: Without a proven passer, opposing defenses jam the line of scrimmage and make life miserable for Peterson every time he carries the ball.
Bottom line: With Bomar, the Sooners were in the national championship chase. Without him, they'll have to scramble to win the wide-open Big 12 South.
BACK AT YOU
Oklahoma's punt return game was a wash last season. OU ranked sixth in the Big 12, averaging only nine yards a return. The Sooners opted for sure-handed but less-explosive Jejuan Rankins because then-freshman Reggie Smith had problems catching punts, though he led the team with a 20.9-yard kickoff return average.
Coach Bob Stoops expects Smith to add some punch to punt returns this season.
"I said all along I think he has the chance to give us those big plays you like to see in our punt return game," Stoops said. "We are going to work hard and make sure we spend extra time on our special teams. They need to consistently be a factor for us in each game."
Kicker Garrett Hartley (14-for-22 with all misses beyond 40 yards and a 52-yarder against Texas) returns, again handles kickoffs and is in the punting picture with junior college transfer Michael Cohen and walk-on Mike Knall.
Freshman tight end Eric Mensik and walk-on Derek Shaw will battle to see who replaces dependable four-year deep snapper Jacob Rice.
Backup tailback Allen Patrick may be the No.1 kickoff return man. Walk-on quarterback Hays McEarchern returns as holder.
THE QB AS OFFICE MANAGER
Offensive coordinator and play-caller Kevin Wilson likes the fact that quarterback Paul Thompson throws "a tight ball." That was evident when Thompson's spiral connected with sophomore receiver Malcolm Kelly on a 50-yard bomb on the first play in team situation in the first practice last Thursday.
Wilson said Thompson doesn't need to be Superman, just play within himself and be a manager.
"We told Paul that we don't need him to put the team on his shoulders," Wilson said. "We have a tremendous team. We're outstanding in defense and (have) a lot of talent on offense.
"(Paul's) job is to get in synch with us and manage the players around him."
Center Jon Cooper said that won't be a problem.
"Paul gets everybody's eyes in the huddle paying attention when he's talking," Cooper said. "He's a leader."
Stoops says the Sooners won't emulate the Baltimore Ravens that won a Super Bowl with a top-flight runner, a dominating defense and a quarterback whose primary job was to not kick over the bucket. "Absolutely not," he said. "Paul has too much ability for that."
The secondary goes from a largely inexperienced and shaky group early last season to a team strength in both depth and ability, led by Reggie Smith's conversion to cornerback opposite D.J. Wolfe, and junior Marcus Walker's shoulder problems appear gone. ... Both safeties look good two-deep with Jason Carter and emerging redshirt Keenan Clayton at strong and Darien Williams and Nic Harris at free.
Sept. 2 UAB
Sept. 9 Washington
Sept. 16 at Oregon
Sept. 23 Middle Tenn.
Oct. 7 Texas(ASTERISK) (Dallas)
Oct. 14 Iowa State(ASTERISK)
Oct. 21 Colorado(ASTERISK)
Oct. 28 at Missouri(ASTERISK)
Nov. 4 at Texas A&M(ASTERISK)
Nov. 11 Texas Tech(ASTERISK)
Nov. 18 at Baylor(ASTERISK)
Nov. 25 at Oklahoma State(ASTERISK)
Oklahoma is the only Big 12 team not facing a I-AA opponent. The Sooners' toughest nonconference game will be the Sept. 16 trip to Oregon. With the uncertainty at quarterback, all of the Big 12 games become challenges.
Key game: Texas. More than usual, this game will determine a lot of things in the Big 12 South. If the Sooners can win in Dallas, their other big toss-up game will be against Texas Tech—a revenge match in Norman.
(c) 2006, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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