With 16 starters and a favorable schedule, Oklahoma is poised for a run at college football’s national title. The Sooners ended 2013 on a high note by defeating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The victory over the Crimson Tide provided plenty of offseason momentum and showcased the development of quarterback Trevor Knight. The sophomore is the x-factor for Oklahoma in 2014. If Knight takes the next step in his development, his emergence will add to a team that has one of the nation’s top defenses, as well as a favorable path to an undefeated record.
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Previewing Oklahoma’s Offense for 2014:
Oklahoma played three quarterbacks last year against Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale. Then Trevor Knight provided clarity for the position, producing a breakthrough performance in a stunning Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, whom he torched for 348 yards and four touchdowns, walking off with the Most Valuable Player trophy and walking into 2014 as the No. 1 quarterback.
Knight will still have to prove he can be consistent, an issue that plagued him as a redshirt freshman a year ago. But the belief inside the program is that the Sooners have something special in Knight, a dual-threat operator who’s been creating a buzz since arriving on campus. Knight will be pushing those around him, too, as the Sooners move ahead without their top rushers, receivers and linemen from 2013.
At Oklahoma, there’s a “next up” mentality. And it’s in play again, amid a sense that there’s a cast of playmakers ready for their shot. Sophomores Alex Ross and Keith Ford are former premium prospects working to earn the feature running back role, yet both will have to hold off incoming freshman and five-star recruit Joe Mixon — a tantalizing combination of speed and power.
Sterling Shepard gives the Sooners a proven and productive receiver who’s ready to thrive as the primary target. Beyond Shepard, inexperience is a concern, although coaches are confident reliable receivers will emerge, including at tight end, which gets renewed emphasis in the passing game.
The offensive line loses All-America center Gabe Ikard, yet the unit is experienced and anchored by senior tackles Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams.
Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Oklahoma Sooners for 2014:
Previewing Oklahoma’s Defense for 2014:
Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big 12 Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 10 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.The front seven projects to be among the best in the Big 12, if not the nation. On the line, there’s talent and depth, headlined by first-team All-Big 12 end Charles Tapper, who produced 5.5 sacks a year ago as a sophomore. Linebacker may be the team’s greatest strength, starting with Eric Striker, who led OU with 6.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for a loss. He’s an attacking and disrupting presence whose energy flows through the entire defense. “He’s not only a great player, he has a great feel for the game, and that’s what great players do,” says defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.
Dominique Alexander, the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2013, also returns after finishing second on the team with 80 tackles. The biggest concern exiting spring was the status of leading tackler Frank Shannon, who was facing possible disciplinary action for an alleged sexual assault.
In the secondary, youngsters will be under fire to hold up the back end, and perhaps, the defense overall. Cornerback Zack Sanchez returns off a Freshman All-America season that saw him lead the team in passes defended. And there’s optimism that OU’s next wave of defensive backs have simply waited their turn.
Previewing Oklahoma’s Specialists for 2014:
Michael Hunnicutt made 24-of-27 field goal attempts in leading the Sooners in scoring last fall when he was a semifinalist for the Groza Award. Jed Barnett averaged 41.7 yards per punt, with more than a third of his boots downed inside the 20. There’s a search for return men, but several candidates are on hand, with Mixon and Shepard offering intriguing possibilities.
The pulse of a program changed dramatically with wins over in-state rival Oklahoma State and Alabama at the end of last season. Reasons for optimism are plenty, from Knight to a talented cast of playmakers and a stout defense to a schedule set up to accommodate ambitious goals.
These Sooners can win. And win big.
Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Oklahoma No. 4
1. Trevor Knight’s development
No, we aren’t expecting to see the same Trevor Knight that gashed Alabama’s secondary for 348 yards and four touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl, but he should continue his development in 2014. Although the performance against Alabama was clearly Knight’s best game last year, he also played a big role in Oklahoma’s 41-31 victory over Kansas State by accounting for 253 total yards and two scores. Even with the turnover at receiver, Knight is set to show major improvement as a passer and will continue to hurt defenses with his legs.
2. An elite defense?
Oklahoma’s defense allowed 5.4 yards per play in Big 12 games last season and finished No. 2 in the conference by allowing 22.1 points per game through 13 contests. With eight starters back (nine if Frank Shannon returns to the team), the Sooners should have one of the nation’s top defenses. The front seven is loaded with talent, and the return of tackle Jordan Phillips will help improve a run defense that struggled at times in 2013. Replacing Aaron Colvin is coordinator Mike Stoops’ biggest offseason priority, but sophomore Zack Sanchez is ready to step up into the No. 1 role. With speed, talent and depth, Oklahoma will have one of the nation’s best defenses in 2014.
3. The schedule
Outside of Florida State, the team with the easiest path to an unbeaten record among programs in a power conference has to be Oklahoma. The Sooners host Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Baylor and play Texas in Dallas. The toughest road games would appear to be against West Virginia and TCU, as well as a matchup at Texas Tech one week after hosting Baylor. Without a tough non-conference game or road date against a top-25 team for 2014, the Sooners have a favorable path to college football’s playoff.
4. A consistent winner at Oklahoma
The Big 12 picks meeting at Athlon Sports featured healthy debate between Baylor and Oklahoma for the No. 1 spot in the conference. The edge went to the Sooners, and a big reason why was the overall consistency and recruiting level of the program. Oklahoma has won at least 10 games in seven out of the last eight years, and Bob Stoops is one of the nation’s best coaches. Outside of Texas, the Sooners have the best roster (according to recruiting rankings) in the Big 12). Baylor should be one of the nation’s top 10-15 teams in 2014, but the Bears have to reload on defense and replace standout guard Cyril Richardson. With an edge in talent, a favorable schedule and a rising star at quarterback, Oklahoma should reclaim the top spot in the Big 12 this year.
5. Special Teams
Special teams are often underrated or forgotten in preseason predictions. The Sooners have one of the nation’s top kickers in Michael Hunnicutt, and punter Jed Barnett averaged 41.7 yards per kick last year. Jalen Saunders will be missed on punt returns, while Roy Finch departs as the top kick returner. However, incoming freshman Joe Mixon could help in this department, and top receiver Sterling Shepard may replace Saunders as the top punt returner.