Oklahoma's run of three consecutive College Football Playoff appearances ended in 2020. Still, the Sooners are on a run entering the 2021 season, having won eight straight games — the second-longest streak in the country — including another Big 12 title game and the Cotton Bowl Classic.
And they're a popular choice to keep on winning, with a stacked roster and a growing swagger built down the stretch last fall.
Previewing Oklahoma's Offense for 2021
Spencer Rattler endured some rough patches during his freshman season, including a three-interception scuffle in an early-season loss to unranked Kansas State.
But he enjoyed some spectacular stretches, too. Over the final seven games, Rattler tossed 15 touchdowns with just two interceptions. Overall, he finished with 3,031 yards and 28 TDs and was voted Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. Now, Rattler is primed for more, having chased off two quarterbacks and established himself as one of the nation's top young signal-callers.
"I feel stronger. I feel faster," Rattler says. "I've put on some weight, up to 210 now. I lost a couple percent body fat. Still got to work on that, of course. But I've got to sharpen up in all different places, so I've still got work to do and still have goals I need to make."
The Sooners must solidify several key spots around Rattler but carry the advantage of a deep cast of players seemingly on the verge.
Running back Kennedy Brooks returns after opting out a year ago, then considering a jump to the NFL. It's a good thing, too, with Oklahoma lacking other proven options. Brooks is averaging 7.5 yards per rush during his career, with 2,067 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Behind Brooks, Tennessee transfer Eric Gray leads a group of candidates bidding for a share of the workload.
The receiving corps features talent, with only a need to identify the go-to guys. Marvin Mims and Theo Wease figure for prominent roles after leading the team with 37 receptions each. Mims could become one of the Big 12's best. Drake Stoops, the son of former OU head coach Bob Stoops, has emerged as a good-hands guy. Mike Woods, a late-April Arkansas transfer who figured prominently the in Razorbacks' plans, presents a proven premium option. And Jadon Haselwood, a heralded recruit, is back after missing much of last season to injury.
The Sooners boast two premium tight ends as well in All-Big 12 pick Jeremiah Hall and Austin Stogner.
There's sorting out to do on the offensive line, with standout center Creed Humphrey and right tackle Adrian Ealy opting for the NFL and five-star tackle Tristan Leigh heading to Clemson after a brisk battle among the Sooners and several Power 5 schools.
Starters Tyrese Robinson, Marquis Hayes and Erik Swenson return, and the latter will be fighting for his job with Anton Harrison building off a standout freshman year. Wanya Morris, another Tennessee transfer, should step in at left tackle, while a group of contenders lines up to fill various roles.
Previewing Oklahoma's Defense for 2021
Alex Grinch's defenses have improved statistically since the coordinator's arrival from Ohio State, although the Sooners still tend to spring leaks against better teams.
Progress is being made, however, and this could be Grinch's best group yet, with a unit that returns seven starters and plenty of competition.
Regulars return across the front six, as does Caleb Kelly, who could start after injuries limited him to just four games the past two seasons.
LaRon Stokes, Perrion Winfrey and Isaiah Thomas are all seniors manning the front. Linebacker Nik Bonitto, a second-team AP All-American, dominates off the edge, where he led the nation in pressure rate, according to Pro Football Focus. Bonitto totaled 10.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks and 10 quarterback hurries.
Delarrin Turner-Yell and Pat Fields are veteran and productive safeties who ranked second and third, respectively, in tackles a year ago.
The Sooners need to solidify the cornerback spots, although D.J. Graham and Woodi Washington started the bowl game and are the favorites to win jobs. Jaden Davis has starting experience and is also in the mix.
Depth is a strength in the Sooner secondary. Grinch wants competition to be, too.
Previewing Oklahoma's Specialists for 2021
Kicker Gabe Brkic's strong and trusty leg earned him first-team All-Big 12 honors and a spot among the Lou Groza Award semifinalists. Punter Reeves Mundschau ranks among the Big 12's best, giving the Sooners a kicking game edge almost every Saturday.
If the Sooners turn the electric Mims loose, the return game could be dynamic.
Since losing two early games a year ago, the Sooners have flexed CFP-like muscle, continuing their Big 12 dominance with a 14th league championship since 2000.
Now, can they carry that success over not just to the CFP, but at least through to the final? That's the question every Sooners fan either finds fascinating, or fears, given Oklahoma's winless struggle in the semifinals.
If Rattler continues his ascent, playmakers develop around him and the team plays strong defense, the Sooners could command another shot at a CFP breakthrough.
National Ranking: 3
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