NORMAN — The preseason is officially over. The college football season has begun.
So with his 18th season upon us, it’s worth asking: at this stage of preparation for the 2016 season opener, what does Bob Stoops worry about?
- The Sooners on Saturday start a season away from home for only the fourth time in Stoops’ tenure (Tulsa in ’03, BYU in Cowboys Stadium in ’09, at UTEP in ‘12) when they visit Houston in NRG Stadium.
- The Cougars, at No. 15 in the Associated Press preseason Top 25, No. 13 in the USA Today coaches poll, are easily the highest-ranked opening day opponent a Stoops-coached team has faced (BYU was No. 20).
- UH was second in the nation last year with 13 victories, behind only the two teams that played in the College Football Playoff championship game, Alabama and Clemson.
- OU must replace Erik Striker and Charles Tapper and Zack Sanchez and Dominique Alexander on defense and Sterling Shepard and Ty Darlington on offense — strong leaders, all, and Stoops said Monday he might not redshirt any of this year’s freshmen. Think about that.
That’s a lot to consider. And with training camp concluded and the players in class and the team in the staunch regimen of game week preparations, the question becomes magnified:
What does Stoops worry about?
“I don’t worry,” he clarified. “I think what it is, every year is the same … watching this new team react in a competitive situation. In other words, you have to earn everything. And so watching ‘em start to do that, to take shape — competitive shape — to be out there on the field and to see how they respond to it.
“And every year is different, because every team’s different.”
So Stoops isn’t concerned that his backup quarterback, freshman Austin Kendall, isn’t good enough to win games if something happens to starter Baker Mayfield.
Stoops isn’t worried that a group of unknown linebackers won’t comprehend what tricks Houston illusionist Greg Ward has up his sleeve when Ward’s magic show begins.
Stoops isn’t fretting over whether Dede Westbrook can elevate his play every week like Shepard did, or if Jeffery Mead or A.D. Miller or Dahu Green can become consistent contributors in the passing game.
Stoops isn’t losing sleep over whether the anticipated guard rotation of Cody Ford, Alex Dalton and Ben Powers can keep Mayfield safe or clear space for Samaje Perine.
Rather, Stoops’ anxiety centers around all those players’ ability to quiet themselves, shut out the noise, focus on the game plan and the opponents’ scheme and just execute.
Stoops answered a question about the breadth of inexperience at linebacker, but his response covers all of the above positions and apprehensions.
“Yeah, there’s no doubt,” Stoops said. “When you get out there and it’s loud and they’re going fast, you’ve got to think quickly and be ready to play. So yeah, there’s always a little bit of that, a little bit of anxiousness, getting guys comfortable with being out on the field on Saturday.”
One thing Stoops doesn’t concern himself with: external expectations.
Stoops lives in a world of here and now, that 2016 is not related to 2015, that Louisiana-Monroe week can be almost completely detached from Houston week, that third down in the fourth quarter has very little to do with third down in the first quarter.
And frankly, Stoops is conflicted on the divergent messages he’s heard about his team going into this season.
On one hand, the Sooners were blown out in their last game, 37-17 to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Oh, how awful!
On the other hand, the Sooners made the CFP bracket and won the program’s ninth Big 12 crown. Oh, how wonderful!
And then there’s the message that Oklahoma hasn’t met preseason expectations lately. Pick OU as a top-five squad (2011), and the Sooners consistently fall short. Think a little less of them (2015), and they’ll surprise you with a championship.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “We don’t pay attention to it. What does it mean? I don’t know. Someone said we’ve been, what, 10 of the last 16 years we’ve been in the top 10 at the end of the season. So I don’t know where y’all were predicting us before the season, but that isn’t all bad.”