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Sooners look strong, just not as strong as past

Oklahoma may not contend for national title — or Big 12 championship
Oklahoma faces many unknowns entering the season, but star running back Adrian Peterson isn't one of them.Jerry Laizure / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The youngest, most inexperienced and least talented team that Bob Stoops says he has coached this decade was the 2000 Oklahoma squad that won the national championship.

With that in mind, Stoops begins his seventh season in Norman, Okla., undaunted by the prevailing national sentiment, which suggests the Sooners, despite a 67-12 record during Stoops's tenure, are vulnerable, perhaps even facing a one-year rebuilding assignment.

First consider losing 10 players to the NFL draft and a Heisman Trophy winner who went undrafted. Then ponder a 55-19 defeat against Southern California eight months ago in the Bowl Championship Series title game. And bear in mind that Texas, which has lost five straight to the Sooners, has been widely pegged the favorite in the Big 12 South Division.

To all of the preseason hype, or lack thereof, Stoops said: "I'm a little bit disinterested in it. . . . We have been in both situations, and we found our way in other years to win championships and other years we have been picked favorites and not won championships."

The most common question posed to Sooner players during the summer has been about the resounding Orange Bowl loss to USC. Some players said during last month's Big 12 media day that the memory was difficult to forget and provided ample offseason motivation. Stoops, however, dismissed the notion, calling it "false motivation and superficial stuff," explaining that each season warrants a fresh start.

In 2003, for instance, Kansas State defeated Oklahoma, 35-7, in the Big 12 title game.

"Everyone said, 'That was a recipe, this is how everyone will do it,' " Stoops said.

But, for the most part, Oklahoma stormed through the 2004 regular season, winning its final three games before the Orange Bowl by at least 27 points. At Stoops's disposal, of course, was an assortment of offensive weapons, including wide receiver Mark Clayton, a 2005 first-round NFL draft pick; the defending Heisman winner, quarterback Jason White; and running back Adrian Peterson, who set the NCAA's freshman rushing record with 1,925 yards and finished second to USC's Matt Leinart in the 2004 Heisman race.

Now White is gone, which forced Stoops to begin summer practice without a starting quarterback in place. Meanwhile, Stoops said, Peterson opened camp appearing bigger and stronger than his 210-pound playing weight last season after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. Figuring to play even more of a role in the offense, Peterson has worked on catching the ball and becoming a better leader, even as a 20-year-old sophomore.

"I am starting to realize that a lot of guys look up to me," Peterson said during the team's media day. "Older guys, and even younger guys, are asking me questions and [they] ask me about how to handle situations. I'm young, but that leadership role has been on me so I need to live up to it."

About the only sure thing in Norman will be the production of Peterson, a favorite for the Heisman. The offensive line must replace three starters, including Outland Trophy winner and first-round draft pick Jammal Brown.

The secondary is a particular concern, with three-quarters of it gone. Sophomore Marcus Walker, who underwent offseason shoulder surgery, is the veteran, having played in four games. What's more, the third different position coach in as many years will direct the group.

"In all honesty," said Bobby Jack Wright, Oklahoma's co-defensive coordinator, "a lot has been said, written, whatever, spoken about the fact that we have so many holes to fill back there" in the secondary. "But I feel good about that nucleus coming back."

Having played in three BCS title games in the last six seasons, losing the last two, Oklahoma is not expected to fall out of the nation's top 10, regardless of how many holes Stoops must address. The schedule sets up fairly nicely, with Texas A&M and Oklahoma State at home. A possible upset could loom at UCLA, Sept. 17.

Despite diminished expectations by the national media, locals in Norman do not anticipate any letdown. In fact, a recent poll conducted by the Oklahoman revealed that more than 50 percent of Sooner fans polled believe the team will go undefeated.

"It has advantages and disadvantages of being on top and having everyone come after you," wide receiver Travis Wilson said during Big 12 media day. "But also it's great to prove people wrong and have people second-guess you, and you prove them wrong at the end of the season."