78F Sun Bowl, El Paso, TX
A 10-win season and bowl victory would be considered a great year for most programs.
Oklahoma is not "most programs."
With quarterback Landry Jones back for a final season and coach Bob Stoops bringing his brother, Mike, back to rejuvenate the defense, the fourth-ranked Sooners kick off their season Saturday night in El Paso against UTEP - the team they faced to open their last national title run in 2000.
The nation's top-ranked team heading into 2011, Oklahoma held serve through the first six games before Texas Tech posted a 41-38 victory that ended the Sooners' 39-game home winning streak.
That was just the beginning of a rough season for Oklahoma's defense, which gave up a program-record 616 yards to Robert Griffin III and Baylor in a 45-38 loss Nov. 19. The defense didn't show up again in a 44-10 loss at Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale as the Sooners' eight-game winning streak in the Bedlam rivalry ended.
A 31-14 victory over Iowa in the Insight Bowl was little consolation for the 10-3 Sooners.
"They don't feel good about what happened, they're tired about hearing about what happened a year ago," said Mike Stoops, who begins his second stint as Sooners defensive coordinator after his seven-plus seasons as Arizona coach ended with his firing last year. "We understand what happened and that's gone forever. I'll be surprised if they don't come back with vengeance in those games and take it personal. I hope they do."
While the Sooners have most likely circled Oct. 6 at Texas Tech, Nov. 10 against Baylor and Nov. 24 versus Oklahoma State on their calendars, Jones is not going to overlook UTEP or any other opponent on the schedule.
Already the Sooners' all-time leader in passing yards (12,379), completions (1,021), attempts (1,628) and touchdown passes (93) - and four wins shy of passing Steve Davis' program record of 32 - Jones didn't skip the NFL draft and potential riches to pad his stats.
"I prayed about it (after the Insight Bowl) and felt like what the Lord wanted me to do is come back and play my senior year and then just be a senior and just get to be with this team one more year and maybe go out and win a national championship," Jones said during training camp.
The Sooners haven't done that since 2000, when current co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel helped Oklahoma open that 13-0 season with a 55-14 home win over UTEP. In the only other meeting between these teams, Oklahoma won 68-0 in Norman on Sept. 14, 2002.
Senior Nick Lamaison won't have any hand in slowing down Jones - or wide receiver Kenny Stills and running back Dominique Whaley - but UTEP's signal-caller will keep an eye on Oklahoma's starting quarterback.
"I've seen him (Jones) play and he's a great player and I have a lot of respect for him, but September 1, if he's the guy, or whatever quarterbacks come into a game, you always want to outperform the other guy," said Lamaison, Conference USA's preseason first-team quarterback.
Lamaison will have senior Mike Edwards and Jordan Leslie to throw to, but UTEP will need to replace its three leading rushers from 2011 - Joe Banyard, Vernon Frazier and Leilyon Myers. That group helped the Miners rank 61st in the FBS with 154.9 yards rushing per game during their 5-7 campaign, the sixth straight losing season for the program.
Coach Mike Price wants to see sophomore Nathan Jeffrey, who ran for 166 yards and one TD in 2011, get 20 carries per game this season.
The Sooners can also expect to see freshmen Autrey Golden, Laquintus Dowell and Xay Williams lined up behind Lamaison, and backup quarterback Carson Meger is also expected to see some action Saturday.
"They like to run the ball," Oklahoma senior defensive lineman David King told the school's official website. "(Lamaison) is pretty good and he can run it. I believe he came out and said he wants to outdo Landry, so we have to come out and make sure that doesn't happen on Saturday."
King shifts to the tackle spot in place of Stacy McGee, who was suspended indefinitely by Bob Stoops earlier this month for a violation of team rules. It was the fifth suspension of the offseason, following the dismissal of wide receiver Kameel Jackson and the reinstatements of Quentin Hayes, Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks, who are practicing but won't be allowed to play.
Oklahoma has won its last eight regular-season non-conference games by an average of 18.0 points.
UTEP is 4-47 against ranked opponents, with its last win coming 58-41 over then-No. 12 Houston on Oct. 3, 2009.