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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

The Times' top 25 college football countdown: No. 5 Oklahoma

Quarterback Landry Jones' decision to return vaulted the Sooners into the ranks of BCS contenders. But key losses up front and at receiver could hold them back.

August 24, 2012|Chris Dufresne
  • Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones returns for a senior season and a national-title run.
Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones returns for a senior season and a national-title… (Jackson Laizure / Getty…)

The quarterback turned down first-round NFL money to complete unfinished business that includes possibly winning the Heisman Trophy and the national title.

What are Matt Barkley and USC doing down here at No. 5?

Well, it's also Landry Jones' and Oklahoma's story.

Jones' decision to return for his senior season made Oklahoma an instant early-bird Bowl Championship Series contender.

That theory held solid through spring and until summer camp, when the Sooners lost two starting offensive linemen to injuries and suspended a top defensive lineman.

The top runner, Dominique Whaley, is returning from a broken ankle. And star receiver Ryan Broyles left for the NFL. So Oklahoma is now a more precarious proposition, although pollsters from Pensacola to Pomona continue to do the Sooners swoon.

Oklahoma debuted at No. 4 in the USA Today coaches' and Associated Press media polls. Last year, Oklahoma started No. 1, lost three games, and finished in the teens.

Here's a shocker stat: Oklahoma has been the preseason No. 1 in the AP poll 10 times. Texas has never been a preseason No. 1.

Oklahoma probably wouldn't mind playing the polls from behind, though.

In 2000, the Sooners won the national title after starting at No. 19. Oklahoma hasn't won another title despite spending a record 20 weeks at No. 1 in the BCS standings. Oklahoma lost the title games of the 2003, '04 and '08 seasons.

The Sooners faded again last year with a 2-2 finish that included double-digit losses at Baylor and Oklahoma State.

Jones and the offense never recovered after Broyles, who had 83 catches and 10 touchdowns, suffered a torn knee ligament Nov. 5 at Texas A&M.

People say Jones struggled after that.

"No, he didn't," Stoops said at Big 12 media day. "The offense struggled. He had more dropped passes in the last three games . . . we couldn't even keep track of how many."

Jones still passed for 4,463 yards and 29 touchdowns. He gives the Sooners' offense a solid Big 12 backbone. Backup Blake Bell provides plenty of situational package punch after rushing for 171 yards and 13 touchdowns last year.

The defense finished No. 55 nationally last year and hopes to get better with the return of Mike Stoops as coordinator.

Stoops is back at his brother's side after an eight-year coaching excursion at Arizona. Although Mike didn't lead the Wildcats to their first Rose Bowl, his contorted sideline antics made for must-watch TV.

Oklahoma defenses have given up almost five points more per game — 20.1 versus 15.5 — since Mike Stoops' last stint as coordinator, from 1999-2003.

"When we've worked together, it's been pretty positive," Bob Stoops said.

The advent of spread offenses and quarterback play have made Big 12 offenses more difficult to defend. Oklahoma proved it last year by giving up 241.5 yards passing per game.

Oklahoma's schedule is challenging, mostly at the end, with games at West Virginia and Texas Christian sandwiched around a huge home game against Oklahoma State on Nov. 24.

Oklahoma State won last year's Bedlam game, 44-10.

The Sooners can't afford many more injuries or mishaps and expect to stay in this season's title chase.

The 2000 title team, remarkably, didn't suffer a significant injury to a starting player.

The countdown so far: 25. Notre Dame; 24. Texas Christian; 23. Utah; 22. Kansas State; 21. Louisville; 20. Boise State; 19. Clemson; 18. Stanford; 17. Michigan State; 16. Oklahoma State; 15. Wisconsin; 14. Nebraska; 13. Arkansas; 12. West Virginia; 11. Florida State; 10. South Carolina; 9. Ohio State; 8. Georgia; 7. Michigan; 6. Texas; 5. Oklahoma.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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