Oklahoma comes into the 2014 season ranked No. 3 in the Coaches Poll and No. 4 in the AP Poll. Despite the high rankings, there are plenty of questions about this Sooners team.
We're continuing our 2014 football preview with a look at five big questions the Sooners need to answer this year.
1. Which Trevor Knight will we see in 2014?
This question has been asked so many times since Knight's performance against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, so why not ask it again? In all seriousness, a lot of the Sooners' success this season, especially on offense, hinges on Knight being the quarterback he was in January and not the one he was last September. In the first two games he started, Knight was 21-of-48 for 205 yards, three interceptions and four touchdowns. His completion percentage was 43.8 percent and he threw an interception every 16 attempts. Knight has said this offseason his time on the sidelines behind Blake Bell refocused him and made him better. The rest of the year, Knight was 58-of-86 for 614 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. His completion percentage went up to 67.4 percent and the interception ratio went down to one every 43 attempts. Many look to the Kansas State game as the game when Knight figured it out, but when Bell went out against Iowa State the week before, Knight filled in admirably, going 8-of-14 for 61 yards and a 56-yard touchdown run.
The need for Knight to perform like he did against Alabama is magnified by the Sooners' lack of experience at the skill positions. Those players need a steady player at quarterback to help them develop so the OU offense can function at a high level. If Knight is the guy we saw at the beginning of last year, it's not going to be good for anyone. But if he plays like Alabama saw him play, the sky is the limit.
2. How will the young skill position players step up?
Oklahoma hardly ever lacks talent on its roster and this year, the Sooners will have to prove just how much talent is there at the skill positions on offense. The running backs lost 80 percent of 2013's yards and carries while the receivers lost 68 percent of last year's yards and receptions. That's a lot to make up and that's made even more difficult by the lack of veteran presences to guide the young players along the way.
There aren't any concerns about the talent levels at running back or wide receiver—at least, none that have been expressed. The question is who is going to step up and how long is that going to take? Sophomore Keith Ford showed great promise at running back last season and freshman Samaje Perine has drawn rave reviews for his play—and his size—so far in practice. At wide receiver, the Sooners at least have Sterling Shepard, but not a lot behind him. There are a lot of options, though, so it's just a matter of someone(s) stepping up, grabbing a starting spot, and building chemistry with Trevor Knight.
3. What will be the results of the pending investigations/eligibility questions?
As of today, three players on the Sooners' roster would not be playing if the season started today (Joe Mixon, Baker Mayfield and Dorial Green-Beckham) and a fourth (Frank Shannon), is still working through an appeals process so he can play this year. Shannon has been suspended by the university for a year, but a district court judge issued a stay, allowing Shannon to continue practicing and playing. Mixon has been charged with a misdemeanor after he punched a girl in the face one night at Pickleman's on Campus Corner in late July and has been suspended for the year. Mayfield is appealing for immediate eligibility after transferring from Texas Tech, while Green-Beckham is doing the same after transferring from Missouri.
Mayfield and DGB's situations are ongoing and it's anyone's guess how the Shannon situation will turn out. All three would be great for the Sooners to have available this year, even Mayfield, who would provide an experienced and skilled backup to Trevor Knight. Mixon would have been an immediate contributor in a wide-open running back race, but there's a lot of talent there without him. It's probably not correct to say the Sooners needed all four of them to be successful this year, but the product on the field with all of them eligible would have been something to see.
4. Will the defense live up to or exceed expectations?
It appears the return of Mike Stoops is beginning to pay major dividends. After a decent 2012 season that ended with the OU defense getting shredded by Johnny Football, the Sooners improved dramatically in 2013. There were still plenty of areas for the Sooners to improve last year, but with the talent the Sooners have accumulated, it's quite possible the Sooners have their best defense since Stoops' first go-round in Norman. However, like other units on the team, there are questions that could prevent OU from delivering on that hype in 2014. Health is an obvious one, but the availability of Frank Shannon is a big one. Losing Shannon could expose a thin linebacker group and put a bit of a hole in the center of the unit. The youth in the secondary could be a problem as well. The Sooners will have two new starters in the secondary this year and both of them could be sophomores, while true freshman Steven Parker could be the starting safety. Much is expected from the OU defense after a solid showing in 2013 and seven sacks against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, but there is still a lot of work to be done to be as good as the units of the early-2000s.
5. Is this another overhyped Oklahoma team?
The Sooners haven't won a national championship since 2000 and haven't played for one since 2008. In the 14 years since Oklahoma's seventh national championship, the Sooners have played for three national championships and have been ranked in the top five in the preseason 10 times. That's not to say the Sooners have been a disappointment. Quite the contrary. The Sooners have been as successful as any team in the country in the Bob Stoops era, but they just don't have the national titles to show for it. The ceiling for this year's team is a national championship, something that hasn't been true since the Sooners came into 2011 ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls. A lot still has to go right for the Sooners to win national championship No. 8. Potential has to be realized; players have to step up; health must be maintained. If all those things happen, there's no reason to think the Sooners can't be the ones holding the trophy in Arlington. But that's a lot that has to happen and no season ever goes exactly according to plan. Just ask last year's Alabama team.