NORMAN, Okla. — The Oklahoma Sooners are boldly talking about playing for a national title.
"It's where you want to be," quarterback Trevor Knight said. "You look at the walls all around this place, that's what's happened before and where we want to be this year."
There's plenty of reason for confidence. The Sooners capped off a strong finish to last season with a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl that energized the rabid fan base. Oklahoma now must back up the excitement it has generated, starting Aug. 30 at home against Louisiana Tech.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is walking a fine line. On one hand, he likes the idea of carrying the momentum from the Sugar Bowl into this season. On the other, he feels the Sooners need to remain hungry and look forward.
"I don't ever buy into whatever you did last year means you're going to do this this year," he said. "Some of the parts you feel good about are the number of guys that are back. It's still going to be different in some areas, and it has to come together. You earn your stripes every year."
Tight end Blake Bell said the Sooners have put in the time to be great.
"This year seems like it could be a special year," he said. "I've been here for four summers, and coming into this one, it just feels like something's different.
The Sooners could be tested Sept. 13 at home against Tennessee, but play most of their toughest Big 12 games at home.
Here are five things to look for from the Sooners this season:
GREAT DEFENSE — Oklahoma led the Big 12 in total defense last season, and most of the unit returns, giving defensive coordinator Mike Stoops hope for even better production this time around. The Sooners have high expectations, even with linebacker Frank Shannon, last year's top tackler, facing a suspension.
"There are signs we can be a better defense than we were a year ago, but again, it's a whole 'nother year," Mike Stoops said. "We have to start at ground zero and work this group into a position that can consistently compete each time we step on the field."
It's Oklahoma's second year in the 3-4 after switching from a 4-3, so the defense should be more refined this time around.
"Scheme-wise, we're light years ahead of where we were a year ago and what we're doing, the wrinkles we want to add to it, how we're handling the different formations we're seeing from the offenses," Bob Stoops said.
CONSISTENT KNIGHT? Knight was brilliant in the Sugar Bowl, passing for 348 yards and four touchdowns on his way to MVP honors. However, he also was in and out of the starting lineup last season and struggled before he found his footing. In his first four games, he completed just 22 of 49 passes with four touchdowns and three interceptions while relying more on his running skills. In his final four games, he completed 57 of 85 passes with five touchdowns and two interceptions. Oklahoma hopes the latter is the real Trevor Knight.
DORIAL GREEN-BECKHAM — Oklahoma added the 6-foot-6 star receiver after he was released from Missouri. Last season, he caught 59 passes for 883 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Sooners are in the process of applying for a waiver to make him immediately eligible. If he plays, he pushes an already dangerous offense to a new level.
WHO WILL CARRY THE BALL? Oklahoma lost its top two rushers from last season, Brennan Clay and Damien Williams. None of the backs stood out during the spring. Alex Ross and Keith Ford are the top returnees, but they combined for just 26 carries last season. Freshman Samaje Perine has drawn raves from the coaching staff. Bob Stoops is high on the group.
GAME-CHANGING KICKER — Michael Hunnicutt should be one of the nation's best kickers. He was a second-team all-Big 12 last season, but he has loftier goals this season. Bob Stoops believes Hunnicutt could be an All-American. A weapon of that caliber could be critical in a tight game.