With only 56 seconds left in the 2014 Sugar Bowl, the Alabama Crimson Tide trailed the Oklahoma Sooners 38–31. Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron dropped back to pass, setting his feet at the Tide nine yard line. Sooner linebacker Eric Striker fought past Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and hit McCarron’s blind side, knocking the ball free. Defensive end Geneo Grissom scooped it up and dove into the end zone.
Just like that, the media once again immortalized the Sooners.
Ever since head coach Bob Stoops led Oklahoma to the national championship in 2000 — in just his second year on the job — the media have looked for any reason to love the Sooners. One would be hard pressed to find a better reason than a decisive victory over Nick Saban’s Tide. The Sugar Bowl win has carried Oklahoma through the offseason as the unquestioned favorite to win a tough Big 12 Conference. So is all of this acclaim truly deserved, or is it just media hype? That remains to be seen, but there’s little question of the talent level on this squad. In particular, the defense might be the best unit Stoops has ever fielded in Norman.
Great defensive fronts seem to be a theme in the conference this year and Oklahoma might have the best. It all starts with Sugar Bowl hero Geneo Grissom and Charles Tapper on the ends. Junior nose tackle Jordan Phillips looks to return from a back injury that sidelined him last season. If he can’t, there are plenty of other options. Senior Chuka Ndulue or sophomore Jordan Wade could all fill spots on one of the deepest and most talented defensive lines in the country.
The other Sugar Bowl hero, Eric Striker, leads an athletic linebacking trio along with Dominique Alexander and Frank Shannon. With significant talent behind them in the form of Jordan Evans and Devante Bond, this group stands to be disruptive against almost anyone.
The defensive backfield faces a similar issue to their Red River rivals, trying to fill a corner spot with an unproven commodity. Zack Sanchez isn’t exactly Quandre Diggs, but he is solid and did plenty of things right in 2013. Senior Julian Wilson returns at the nickel, but the other slot was still up for grabs coming out of spring. Dakota Austin shows as the front-runner, but sophomore Stanvon Taylor and junior Cortez Johnson could very well step into the role of second corner by fall. Things are more solid at safety with senior Quentin Hayes and some combination of sophomores Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas. The trio will be joined by four-star freshman Steven Parker in the fall, who should provide solid depth.
On offense, things start and end with sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight. If Knight can deliver on the incredible promise he showed in the bowl game, the Sooners could be in for a special season. Former quarterback Blake Bell moved to tight end this offseason, leaving OU inexperienced behind Knight. Redshirt freshman Cody Thomas and four-star newcomer Justice Hansen round out the post-spring depth chart. Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield is required by NCAA rules to sit out this season.
After losing both Brennan Clay and Roy Finch to graduation, experience is at a premium behind the quarterback as well. Sophomore Keith Ford exited spring as the starter, but Alex Ross did a lot to impress as well. A pair of four-stars — Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine — add depth and a promising future to the Sooner running game.
Sterling Shepard looks to be a force on the outside, especially if Knight plays Sugar Bowl-esque this season. But in order for both Shepard and Knight to explode, Oklahoma will need another viable receiving threat. Sophomore Derrick Woods is listed opposite Shepard, but only has two catches for his Sooner career. Junior Durron Neal, listed third on the depth chart only has 18 catches in his two seasons. Blake Bell has the size to make noise at tight end, but it remains to be seen how he adapts to his new position.
OU should have a solid offensive line, deep enough at guard and tackle to mitigate injury concerns. Daryl Williams comes in as the defacto leader of the unit at tackle, and junior Nila Kasitati returns at guard. Tyrus Thompson and Dionte Savage exit spring as starters in the other guard and tackle spots, respectively. At center, junior Ty Darlington steps in for All-Big 12 performer Gabe Ikard, and is expected to hold the position nicely.
KSUEMAW! attempts to make up for his poor debut in the picks as he is one of only two writers to pick the 'Cats to grab a win in Norman. (You might be starting to notice a theme with JT's picks.) The rest of us believe the Knight hype and agree that this road trip won't be as successful as 2012. Who knows how much can actually be gleaned from the Sugar Bowl, but if this Sooner team is anywhere close to as good as the team that beat the Tide by two touchdowns, it's going to be a tough year for the rest of the Big 12.