The Sugar high for Oklahoma hasn't worn off yet.
Nearly six months after beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, the vibe around the Sooners is still College Football Playoff or bust. With quarterback Trevor Knight returning, along with most of the defense, Oklahoma has its sights on returning to the national championship conversation.
What needs to happen to make sure Oklahoma's hopes don't come crashing down? Here are three keys to the 2014 season.
Trevor Knight's Health
The offseason is a time when bold, piping hot predictions are not only acceptable, but encouraged. If for no other reason, here's why: No one, not even with all the research and film study available, knows how things are going to play out during the season. Might as well take a shot, then.
Here's the bold prediction for Knight: He'll be the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year.
The obvious reply to that #hotsportstake is he had just one good game last season: the Sugar Bowl. But anyone who followed the Sooners more closely should agree that Knight began to turn the corner as a passer several weeks before against Iowa State and Kansas State.
But Knight was unable to show what looked like a major progression because of injury problems (He missed most of the regular season-ending game against Oklahoma State.). Therein lies Knight's biggest obstacle for 2014: staying healthy.
All of the questions about Knight's consistency are moot if he can't stay on the field for two or three consecutive weeks. The Sooners have a pair of freshmen behind Knight, Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen, but neither have collegiate game experience.
More importantly, neither bring what Knight brings to the game. Thomas, a dual-sport player for Oklahoma, is athletic, but if he was truly better than Knight, well, he'd be starting.
With Knight, Thomas and Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, head coach Bob Stoops has shown a willingness to add more dual-threat quarterbacks. In college, few things are more dangerous than a legit dual threat. Stoops saw what Knight could be when he named the then-redshirt freshman the starter last season.
Knight may not live up to expectations this season. Oklahoma may not, for that matter. But the probability of that happening increases dramatically if Knight can't stay healthy.
The Interior of the Defense Fails to Improve
So much is made of Knight and his role in Oklahoma's CFP-or-bust mentality. But another reason why the Sooners should be the preseason Big 12 favorites, and why Phil Steele has them as a preseason top-five team, is the defense.
The defensive line and linebackers return intact. That's a group that includes names like Charles Tapper, Jordan Phillips, Geneo Grissom, Eric Striker and Dominique Alexander.
According to ESPN's Brandon Chatmon, the Sooners "should easily go six or seven deep along the defensive line" and the linebackers are why the defense should be one of the "most athletic and versatile in the conference."
That defensive front six will determine the tone for Oklahoma's postseason run, especially with questions about Knight, youth on offense and the secondary.
But that group also struggled against the run at times last season, especially up the middle, even though statistically it finished second in the Big 12 behind TCU (per cfbstats.com).
Signs of this weakness began surfacing during a late September win against Notre Dame when Irish running back George Atkinson III scooted for an 80-yard touchdown. In losses to Baylor and Texas, the Sooners gave up exactly 255 yards on the ground per game, allowing 4.5 yards per rush on average.
Oklahoma gave up another 144 yards on 21 carries to Oklahoma State running back Desmond Roland in the Bedlam game. Even in the win over Alabama, the Sooners allowed 100 yards on just eight carries to Tide running back Derrick Henry.
Offenses that had had solid running games, oftentimes with bruising running backs, had success against Oklahoma. Of course, the back injury that cost Phillips most of last season didn't help. At 324 pounds, Phillips is a mammoth who can occupy double-teams to create openings for linebackers in run support.
With Phillips ready to go, run defense should improve. As odd as it sounds, the Big 12 wasn't a quarterback conference last year. Outside of Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, Texas Tech's Davis Webb and perhaps Kansas State's Jake Waters, not much may change this season.
So Oklahoma better be ready to stop the run.
Developing the Wide Receivers
For being only a second-year starter, Knight is going to be the leader of the offense, an offense that should be more run-heavy.
Junior Sterling Shepard moves into the No. 1 spot after a breakout 2013. Who fills in the spots alongside Shepard remains a battle to watch in preseason camp. Durron Neal and Derrick Woods are young, talented guys who have to step up in a way similar to how Shepard did last season.
Developing the wide receivers beyond Shepard gives Oklahoma's offense balance. The Sooners don't have to be the Air Raid team they once were, but they do need to have a passing threat. For as talented as Knight is, he can't face eight or nine-man boxes week after week.
Wide receivers coach Jay Norvell has done an excellent job with his group since arriving in 2008. This year will be one of his biggest challenges yet with the Sooners.
Winning a Big 12 title isn't impossible with a one-sided offense, but it doesn't make things any easier. Even the threat of the passing game would be enough to let Knight and Oklahoma's running backs run wild.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.
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