Oklahoma football practice gets started this week and you’ve had questions since the second-half collapse against Clemson.
We know the Sooners will start the season ranked in the top five. We know Baker Mayfield, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon will be the focal point of the offense.
We know Houston and Ohio State make this one of the most-interesting non-conference schedules in the country.
But what do we not know?
Here are three questions coach Bob Stoops will have to deal with heading into summer practice:
1. How can Baker Mayfield stay healthy?
Nothing is more crucial to the Sooners’ success in 2016 than Mayfield’s ability to stay upright. It doesn’t take much evidence to prove it, either. Remember last season when Mayfield was knocked out of the game by TCU? Remember how that second half against the Frogs went? Uh, yeah. About that.
Mayfield’s strength is his gambling style of play. His ability to make something out of nothing is what makes him fun to watch but it’s potentially his undoing, too. Stoops needs to figure a way to get the most out of Mayfield without muzzling his creativeness.
Of course, having Mixon and Perine in the backfield should be an excellent option. Consider, the more Mayfield hands off, the more likely the Mayfield will be there in a close game when the Sooners need him most.
It won’t be easy, though. Mayfield has suffered at least two concussions. Being careful isn’t just necessary for the Sooners, it’s necessary for the health and longevity of Mayfield’s career. Another concussion and he may be out for an extended period of time.
Meanwhile, the back-up quarterback derby has yet to be decided. Trevor Knight is gone. In his place is inexperience.
And in the mind of Stoops, that has to be a concern. He’s got to make sure Mayfield stays healthy.
2. The offense is settled, but what’s the story with the defense?
Five starters are gone, the defensive line will be totally different and the linebacking group is deeply unsettled. Other than that, everything should be fine.
No more Eric Striker, meaning Jordan Evans is the new leader of the linebackers. You’ll see a mix of new faces there with Tay Evans and Curtis Bolton expected to play significant amounts. Matt Romar and Ogbonnia Okorokwo will fill in on the defensive line.
Perhaps Mayfield and the offense will be counted on to bail out the defense – at least at the beginning of the season as the Sooners take on an impressive Houston team and its offense. With so many questions, including whether Jordan Thomas, who has now had two run-ins with the law, will be suspended for any amount of time.
Defensive lineman Charles Walker is considered to be a potential first-round pick. Thomas, Ahmad Thomas and Steven Parker make up an extremely experienced defensive backfield. Past that? Lots of new faces and now Stoops needs to figure out who can be counted on.
3. Is the Big 12 going to be strong enough
Well, we know Oklahoma is one of the top teams in the country and we know TCU will show up. The Frogs always do, but beyond that, this has to be considered a down year for the Big 12.
Texas is full of questions, Oklahoma State, too. Texas Tech should be better, but who knows. Same goes for West Virginia and for Kansas State.
The question for Stoops has to be, if the Sooners lose a game – say to Houston or Ohio State – will sweeping through the Big 12 be enough to push Oklahoma back into the College Football Playoff.
OU got hot at the expense of some of bad teams and unfortunate injuries last season, whipping Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas and then getting away with playing back-up quarterbacks in wins against Baylor, TCU and OSU. Can’t expect the same good fortune this year, especially with Bears being essentially written of.
Oklahoma’s non-conference is strong. Win those two big games and OU will be a virtual lock to make the playoff if they can sweep through the Big 12. But a loss early on? It will probably take something special and the Sooners will need a lot of help to make another trip to the playoffs.