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Can the Oklahoma Sooners Live Up to Lofty Preseason Expectations in 2016?

Bob Stoops

Bob Stoops

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There’s a commonly held belief in college football circles that when expectations forOklahoma zig, the Sooners zag.

Preseason No. 1? Book your tickets for the Insight Bowl.

Starting the season at No. 20? Go ahead and print the Big 12 championship shirts.

Take last season, for example. After opening at No. 19 in the preseason AP poll, the Sooners gradually worked their way into a bid to the College Football Playoff.

This marks one of those years in which big things are expected of Bob Stoops’ team. OU consistently showing up in preseason top 10s, including No. 6 on Athlon Sports’, will undoubtedly have Sooner fans feeling antsy.

Related: Oklahoma Sooners 2016 Preview and Prediction

There are plenty of reasons to feel confident that the reigning Big 12 champs can buck the trend of falling short, though — stalwarts in the defensive backfield, a loaded group of running backs, talented receivers. Four in particular stand out.

1. The Sooners are getting stronger in the trenches

Considering the state of OU’s offensive line in 2015, the Sooners arguably made it to the postseason a year ahead of schedule. Freshmen Orlando Brown and Dru Samia bookended the tackle positions, and an unheralded sophomore, Jonathan Alvarez, held down the left guard spot.

That inexperience won’t be an issue for the unit this season. Offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh will have three returning starters at his disposal, with Alvarez taking over for Ty Darlington at center. He’ll likely fill out the other two openings with upperclassmen such as third-year sophomore Alex Dalton or talented newcomers like junior college transfer Ben Powers.

Meanwhile, the lack of depth that once plagued OU’s defensive line has become a thing of the past. Despite losing all-conference performer Charles Tapper to the NFL, six players who factored into the DL rotation last season return. They include run stuffer Charles Walker, whose absence last year in the Orange Bowl versus Clemson significantly hamstrung the Sooners’ ability to slow down Deshaun Watson and Wayne Gallman.

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Additionally, two of the jewels of OU’s ‘15 recruiting class, Neville Gallimore and Du’Vonta Lampkin, are ready to see some reps after redshirting.

2. Baker Mayfield

A returning starter at quarterback who finished in the top five of the previous year’s Heisman voting can’t hurt, right?

The former walk-on QB at Texas Tech erased any lingering skepticism about his skills right away last season. Acting as the catalyst to an offensive makeover under first-year coordinator Lincoln Riley, he proved to be a nearly ideal fit in the newly re-installed Air Raid.

The only real concern with Mayfield will be keeping him on the field. His scrambling style exposes him to his fair share of hits, and his history of concussions bears close watching. If he can make it through the year unscathed, though, the Sooners will likely have another spot in the Playoff.

Related: Ranking the Big 12's Quarterbacks for 2016

3. Coaching continuity

New blood on a coaching staff isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Stoops hired four new assistants last year, and that seemed to work out well.

It’s also comforting to keep a good thing going. Aside from losing DL coach Diron Reynolds to Stanford, OU’s staff returns intact from ‘15. Importantly, Broyles Award winner Riley spurned overtures from suitors offering head coaching jobs to stay in Norman.

The Sooners should continue to benefit from a collection of assistants that demonstrated great chemistry in its first season together. These coaches should have an even better grasp of the strengths and weaknesses of their personnel now, too.

Related: Ranking the Big 12 Coordinator Tandems for 2016

4. A quality kicking game

OU fans understand the perils of subpar special teams all too well by now. Kicking gaffes, in particular, have shifted a fair number of results to the wrong side of the ledger in Stoops’ nearly two decades in Norman.

Last year, Austin Seibert lived up to billing as the No. 1 kicker overall in the ‘15 recruiting class. In addition to converting 18 of 23 field goals and 70 of 72 extra points, he ably handled punting duties.

Barring a complete collapse, the Sooners should enter every matchups next season feeling confident that they have the edge in the kicking game.

— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.