OK, we've already talked about how the Oklahoma Sooners will deal with the hype of being the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country. Well, you can put the big, fat kibosh on all that title talk if OU's 2011 rushing attack is the equivalent to the 2010 version.
That may seem hard to believe, given that OU had a running back last year who scored more touchdowns than any player ever to wear a Sooner jersey. Yet, despite DeMarco Murray's warrior mentality, the running game last year ranged from mostly adequate to disheartening throughout the season.
The Sooners averaged 138 yards per game last year, which ranked 83rd nationally. That was the worst ranking for a Bob Stoops team since 2001. The Sooners rushed for more than 125 yards only four times all last year, and only one of those times was it against a team in the top 50 nationally in rushing defense (Colorado - 48th).
History shows that championship teams must have a solid running offense. Since 2000, the 2006 Florida Gators had the lowest per-game rushing average for a BCS national champion, with 160 yards.
Stats aside, the power punch the ball in when the passing game is inherently limited – i.e., inside in the red zone – is invaluable. In recent memory, OU's inability to get over the goal line at critical moments was never more excruciating than during the Texas A&M game last year and the BCS championship against Florida at the end of the 2008 season. That red zone ineptitude proved to be the difference in both contests – those games are profoundly different if just one additional trip inside the 20 in each of those games resulted in a touchdown.
So, can OU improve the ground game? There's reason for hope, but it's far from a certainty.
The only backs with significant experience on the roster are running back Roy Finch and fullback Trey Millard. There's no concern here with Millard. He was outstanding in short yardage and showed up on a few all-Big 12 teams last year. Finch is shifty and exciting, but he's not likely to be a Murray-type workhorse.
The other young studs in the backfield have upside, but are unproven. Brennan Clay has Murray-like versatility. In high school, he was the first player in California high school history to have 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving in the same season. Freshman Brandon Williams has been hyped beyond belief, but unless he can duplicate an Adrian Peterson-like freshman year, he'll most likely get shared duty. Seldom-used elders Jermie Calhoun and Jonathan Miller have not gotten over the injury bug and have yet to fulfill their potential.
All in all, running back by committee looks like the most probable result this year. The good news is that that kind of arrangement has proved successful for the Sooners as recently as 2008, when Murray and Chris Brown both rushed for more than 1,000 yards on the season.
Of course, even Marcus Dupree needed blockers. It's not a coincidence that the line was also inconsistent last year.
Like the backs, the offensive line looks promising, but improvement is far from a slam dunk. This year's group has a lot of experience as a result of young guys being thrown in the fire the last two years. Only Eric Mensik is gone from 2010, but the injury to senior tackle Jarvis Jones is like losing a second starter. At a minimum, he'll miss the first four games including the big test at Florida State.
The only senior starter left on the line is left tackle Donald Stephenson. There will be seven underclassmen with game time experience in the two-deep. That's some solid upside.
You can't help but get excited at the thought of what could happen if this side of the ball comes together. The Sooners may not match the feats of 2008, but 2004 is realistic. That was good enough for a shot at the title.