Oklahoma took care of overmatched foes in UTEP and Florida A&M to kick off the 2012 campaign, but the Big 12 opener against visiting Kansas State proved to be extremely difficult, and the Wildcats escaped Norman with a 24-19 triumph. At 2-1, Stoops rallied his team to beat up on Texas Tech (41-20), Texas (63-21) and Kansas (52-7), but a 30-13 setback versus Notre Dame at the end of October, OU's second loss of the season and second at home, stopped any momentum it had gained.
Still, the Sooners weren't about to roll over and play dead, reeling off five straight victories, including wild ones against West Virginia (50-49) and Oklahoma State (51-48 OT), to end the regular season at 10-2. A date with former Big 12 rival Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl was their reward, but the Johnny Manziel-led Aggies rolled to a 41-13 win, leaving a sour taste in the collective mouths of both the Sooners, and their frenzied fan base as they turned their attention to 2013.
OFFENSE: Despite averaging nearly 39 ppg last season, the Sooners ranked in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 in scoring, doing so behind an aerial attack that generated 336.5 ypg to rank third in the conference and fifth nationally. Quarterback Landry Jones was the guy Stoops relied on to keep the offense moving, but he is no longer around, leaving the reins to junior Blake Bell. A formidable presence in the running game, 24 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons, Bell is clearly a skilled football player, but it remains to be seen if he has the ability to throw the ball effectively as well. Expected to challenge for snaps are both Kendall Thompson and Trevor Knight.
Stoops spoke recently about what each of the three QB prospects brings to the table.
"They all exhibit toughness and leadership in different ways, not only how they work, how they conduct themselves, and they're competitive on the field. I've been excited to watch all of them throw the football. They all run well."
While the quarterback picture is still a bit fuzzy, the one area in which Stoops isn't concerned is the running game. Damien Williams, Brennan Clay and Trey Millard combined for nearly 1,700 yards and 17 TDs as juniors last year, and the hope is the veteran trio will be even more effective, particularly if Bell is the answer under center. All five starters are back along the offensive line, anchored by All-Big 12 First Teamer Gabe Ikard at center.
The receiving corps took a hit with the loss of Kenny Stills (82 receptions, 959 yards, 11 TDs) and Justin Brown (73 receptions, 879 yards, five TDs), but Jalen Saunders (62 receptions, 829 yards, three TDs) heads a list of six guys who logged double-digit catches in 2012.
DEFENSE: With the Big 12 being a league dominated by offense, defenses often times are forced to play catch up, and for Oklahoma, it had its share of ups and downs last year. The Sooners did a solid job defending the pass (206.1 ypg, second in the Big 12, 29th nationally), but struggled against the run (192.2 ypg, ninth in the conference, 89th nationally), and the loss of seven starters means there are likely to be some growing pains in all aspects this fall.
The marquee name on the OU defense is senior corner Aaron Colvin, who finished third on the team last year with 61 total tackles, to go along with four interceptions and a club-best 11 PBU.
Others hoping to up their level of play, while at the same time offering much- needed leadership on and off the field are junior defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue, senior linebacker Corey Nelson and senior free safety Gabe Lynn. Ndulue led the Sooners with five sacks last season.
Patience is the order of the day with regard to the Oklahoma defense, and Stoops is well aware it's going to take some time for his unit to come together.
"Well, it's obvious we lost five seniors up front. So there's inexperience there. We do feel we have quality players and a good number of them up there in the defensive line," He continued, "Those guys have to continue to develop, and they're working hard at it. I believe we'll have a chance to be a good, solid unit up there. There's good talent in those positions."
SPECIAL TEAMS: With so many talented skill position players on the roster, Oklahoma's return game should be just fine. Junior placekicker Michael Hunnicutt had a stellar season in '12, converting 17-of-21 field goal attempts, although he only tried four kicks from beyond 40 yards, missing two of them. Junior college transfer Jed Barnett appears to have the inside track on becoming the team's new punter.
OUTLOOK: The Sooners should have a relatively easy time of it in the season opener against ULM, but from there the road gets tougher. The Big 12 lidlifter versus West Virginia is next, followed by a visit from Tulsa and a trip to Notre Dame.
It's all conference games from there, and the toughest ones all take place on the road -- Nov. 7 at Baylor, Nov. 23 at Kansas State and Dec. 7 at Oklahoma State.
Question marks abound on both sides of the ball for Oklahoma, prompting most pundits to think this year's club won't challenge for the Big 12 title. Still, Stoops has assembled a ton of talent in Norman and if all goes right, the Sooners could find themselves in familiar territory come early December.