Preview Louisiana Tech at Oklahoma
GAME NOTES: The fourth-ranked Oklahoma Sooners open what they hope is a season for the ages, as they entertain the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs at Gaylord Family- Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on Saturday night.
Skip Holtz was hired prior to last season to try and take Louisiana Tech to the next level, but his first campaign in Ruston was a disappointment as the Bulldogs went just 4-8, winning only three of their eight Conference USA clashes.
Weak play on both sides of the ball contributed to the team's woes, and while clearly an underdog in this contest, winning more than the one non-conference game it did last season (27-14 versus FCS foe Lamar) will be paramount to building up some momentum heading into league play.
Louisiana Tech, which opens the season with three road games in 13 days, is 0-20 against AP Top-25 foes dating back to 2000.
In the decade and a half that Bob Stoops has been in charge of the football program at the University of Oklahoma, the Sooners have been perennial powers not only in the Big 12 Conference, but on the national scene as well.
Last season was no different, as OU streaked out to a 5-0 start before suffering its first loss in a 36-20 setback to rival Texas. An embarrassing 41-12 loss to eventual Big 12 champ Baylor came a little later, but the Sooners bounced back to win their final three games of the regular season. As a result, Stoops' troops were rewarded with a Sugar Bowl showdown with Alabama, and the Sooners prevailed in that contest, 45-31.
This game marks the 200th of Stoops' tenure in Norman, and it also marks the first-ever meeting between Louisiana Tech and Oklahoma on the football field.
The Bulldogs really struggled on offense in 2013, scoring more than 20 points just four times, all of which resulted in victory. On the flip side, they were held to 16 points or fewer in each loss.
Iowa transfer Cody Sokol gets the nod at quarterback for this opener. Sokol, who actually began his college career at Scottsdale Community College where he broke several passing records held by for LA Tech standout Tim Rattay, will need plenty of help from his teammates if the Bulldogs are going to enjoy any kind of offensive success this season.
The problem is the receiving corps is pretty thin in terms of returning talent, with only Sterling Griffin having logged any meaningful stats last season (33 receptions, 357 yards, two TDs).
At least Louisiana Tech will have some experience coming out of the backfield, with Kenneth Dixon (917 yards, four TDs) back for another go as he tries to make himself into a more of a household name.
"Kenneth Dixon is going to be one of the best running backs in our league," said offensive coordinator Tony Petersen at the conclusion of the team's final summer scrimmage.
A total of seven starters return to a defense that put forth several disappointing efforts last season. Leading tackler Daniel Cobb is no longer around, but several productive guys are, including free safety Thomas McDonald, who was second on the squad last season with 70 tackles to go with five pass breakups and three interceptions.
Strong safety Xavier Woods (61 tackles) is hoping to elevate his game, as are corners Adarius Barnes, Le'Vander Liggins and Bryson Abraham.
Mitch Villemez and Tony Johnson highlight the linebacking corps, while veterans Devon McKinney and Houston Bates anchor the line. Considering the defense allowed nearly half of third downs to be converted successfully, and almost 200 rushing yards per game last season, the Bulldogs absolutely need to tighten the reins up front.
They will know right away how they stack up as Oklahoma's strong suit last season was running the football (223.9 ypg). The loss of several standout performers means Stoops will need to rely on some talented, if unproven backs this year. Sophomores Alex Ross and Keith Ford will likely hear their number called most, particularly in the wake of highly-touted recruit Joe Mixon's year-long suspension for his alleged involvement in a July incident that resulted in an assault charge being filed against him.
Sophomore Trevor Knight cemented his role as the team's starting quarterback after lighting up Alabama in the Sugar Bowl (348 yards, four touchdown passes). Knight doesn't have the most inexperienced crop of pass catchers at his disposal, but there is talent there, led by junior Sterling Shepard (51 receptions, 603 yards, seven TDs) and former quarterback, now tight end Blake Bell.
The Sooners were hopeful that the NCAA would rule in favor of allowing talented, but troubled Missouri transfer Dorial Green-Beckham to suit up this season, but that isn't going to happen as his appeal was denied.
The Sooners were an exceptional defensive team last season, yielding just 22.1 points and 350.2 yards per game, the former ranking them second in the Big 12, and the latter first.
The unit returns a slew of starters, although leading tackler Frank Shannon (92) has been suspended for the season for his apparent involvement in an off- the-field issue this past spring. Dominique Alexander (80) and Quentin Hayes (75) highlight the eligible returnees, with Alexander and Eric Striker (team- high 6.5 sacks last season) helping form one of the better linebacking corps in the conference. Junior defensive end Charles Tapper (5.5 sacks) is expected to be the anchor along what should be a very good defensive line as well.
The loss of former standouts Gabe Lynn and Aaron Colvin means the secondary could be an area of concern, although seniors Hayes and Julian Wilson will be there to provide veteran leadership. Despite the secondary being a bit suspect, Stoops has done a nice job recruiting and believes his guys will be up to the task.
"We really like some of our young freshmen that just got in. So there's talent there. Those guys, we're just going to see who is the most consistent and making the most plays."
Louisiana Tech may climb a rung or two up the C-USA ladder this season, but the Bulldogs are undermanned and outclassed in this matchup. Oklahoma is 14-1 in home openers under Stoops, and another tally in the win column is almost a forgone conclusion.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Oklahoma 41, Louisiana Tech 10