Under Bob Stoops, Oklahoma has established themselves as the dominant team in the Big XII conference in this decade, with six conference championships in the last nine years. Yes, Texas got a national championship this decade as well, and the Sooners haven't done so well in bowl games, losing the last five BCS bowl games.
Losing those games hurts, no doubt...but any Sooner fan would take the 2000's over the 1990's, when the Sooners stumbled and bumbled and nearly became irrelevent.
Last season seemed like another Stoops-era team. Won the Big XII championship game, then lost to Florida 24-14 in the BCS Championship Game. From that squad, 14 starters return, ensuring that once again, the Sooners will be challenging for Big XII superiority once again.Offensively, it all starts with quarterback Sam Bradford, who took home the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore last season. Completed nearly 68% of his passes for 50 (yes, FIFTY) touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He set an NCAA record for pass efficiency at 180.8. In summary: he's good. Especially at home ... or at least within the state of Oklahoma, where he's undefeated in his college career.
Junior DeMarco Murray and senior Chris Brown represent the best running back tandem in the Big XII conference. Murray was all-Big XII last season...yet Brown outgained him in yards: 1220 for Brown versus 1002 yards for Murray. (Murray's season ended due to a knee injury suffered on the opening kickoff of the Big XII Championship game, allowing Brown to pass Murray up.)
Graduation hit the rest of the Sooners offense hard; gone are wide receivers Juaquin Iglesias and Manuel Johnson. Sophomore Ryan Broyles enters 2009 as the leading candidate to start; he set an OU record for freshman receiving yards. Broyles lit up Cincinnati for 141 yards and finished the season as the Sooners #3 receiver. Senior all-Big XII tight end Jermaine Gresham will be Bradford's favorite target. The 6'6" 261 freak is simply too fast for linebackers to cover and too big for the secondary to bring down. Defensive coordinators will lose a lot of hair trying to figure out what to do with Gresham.
Up front, the Sooners lose four of five offensive linemen, only returning senior all-Big XII left tackle Trent Williams. Three of the departing starters (Phil Loadholt, Duke Robinson, and Jon Cooper) were all-Big XII in 2008. The anticipated replacements were all highly regarded recruits, but are generally light on experience with the exception of senior left guard Brian Simmons, who played in every game and started twice in 2008. We'll find out in 2009 just how much of Bradford's numbers in 2008 can be attributed to the fortress protecting him up front.
On defense, the Sooners are absolutely loaded. On the defensive line, junior all-Big XII defensive end Jeremy Beal, junior all-American defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, and senior all-Big XII (in 2007) defensive end Auston English all return. English sprained his knee against the Huskers last season, causing him to miss the next three games and relegating him to merely honorable mention all-conference in 2008. Junior defensive tackle Adrian Taylor started all 14 games last season to round out the defensive line.
Depth at linebacker is much the same story. Last year's Big XII Defensive freshman of the year and all-Big XII in 2008, sophomore Travis Lewis returns, as does senior Keenan Clayton, who was honorable mention all-Big XII last season. The heart of the defense, senior middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds returns after suffering a torn ACL in the Texas game. The Sooner defense never seemed to recover from the loss of Reynolds last season.
In the secondary, both senior cornerbacks Brian Jackson and Dominque Franks return. Franks, a second-team all-Big XII selection last season, jumped on the wide receiver screen pass from Joe Ganz to Nate Swift and easily scored on the pick-six before anybody in Husker gear realized what had happened. The Sooners will need to break in new safeties to replace all-Big XII Nic Harris and Lendy Holmes. Most teams would kill to only have those question marks going into the season.
Last year's Sooner defense forced three turnovers on Nebraska's first five offensive plays to jump to a 28-0 lead barely six minutes into the game. With almost all of that defense returning in 2009, it's going to make it even more difficult to pull off an upset in Lincoln. While Nebraska's defense looks to be able to match up better with the Sooner offense this season, the Husker offense is going to need to progress rapidly to get Nebraska into the game against this group of Sooners. Pulling off that upset is going to be quite the challenge.