Sam Bradford, Jermaine Gresham, Trent Williams and Gerald McCoy weren't ready to finish their college football careers, even when millions of dollars waited for each of them in April's NFL Draft.
The four leaders of the Oklahoma football program weren't thinking about the NFL this spring. Not after January's disappointing 24-14 loss to Florida in the BCS Championship.
That's because unfinished business awaits.
On the surface, Oklahoma enjoyed a wonderful 11-2 season last year. The Sooners ran one of the most brilliant offenses in the history of college football, becoming only the third team in the modern era to score 700 points. They won their third straight Big 12 Championship. They also won in style, averaging an incomprehensible 51.14 points per game.
But when it comes to the tradition-rich Oklahoma Sooners, gridiron success is measured in national championship trophies. OU already owns seven.
The return of would-be first-day NFL Draft picks Bradford, Gresham, Williams and McCoy should give OU fans every reason to believe trophy No. 8 is within striking distance. Why else would this fearsome foursome return? Surely not just to get to another Big 12 Championship. That would be expected because OU's represented the South in the conference title game six of the last seven years.
The Sooners' expectations will be to erase last year's BCS memory and capture the school's first national championship since 2000.
OU's path will be more exciting to follow than ever this year, because Texas essentially has the same championship-or-bust mentality. Texas vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 17 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, will easily be the most significant regular-season game in the country. Both teams should be in the top 5, and the winner will decide which squad has the early edge in playing for the BCS Championship.
Welcome to the latest edition of Conference Chatter's summer gridiron report. Here's a schedule of when each Big 12 team was/will be featured:
Big 12 North
Big 12 South
We'll keep things moving with Oklahoma, which finished last season 12-2 (7-1 conference) with a loss to the Gators in the BCS Championship.
Biggest question mark: Offensive line.
Williams is the lone returning starter on the O-line and will shift from right to left tackle to protect Bradford's blind side. This should increase Williams' NFL Draft value. The first three offensive linemen taken in April's NFL Draft were left tackles, including former Big 12 standout Jason Smith of Baylor at No. 2 overall.
The Sooners return just 29 career starts on the O-line next season, second-worst in the Big 12 to Kansas' 26. Coach Bob Stoops called the O-line out in spring practices and said it was the weak link of the team. Sure, replacing four starters won't be easy.
I think the Sooners' O-line concerns have been a bit overblown.
It's not like there's a complete lack of experience on the line. Williams is a senior, and Brian Simmons is another senior who's expected to start at left guard. Simmons has seen action in every game the past two seasons and started twice in 2007. He's been OU's top reserve offensive lineman.
Furthermore, junior Cory Brandon saw action in nine games last year and is expected to start at right tackle. Then, there's sophomore right guard Stephen Good, who saw action in seven games last year and has an extremely high ceiling as a five-star Rivals.com recruit.
That leaves only freshman center Ben Habern thrown into the trenches at a very early age. I think this line should be fine next season.
Keep in mind, too, this is Oklahoma, a school that recruits in the trenches as well as anyone. I have to think most of OU's backup linemen in 2008 could have started on about half of the offensive lines in the Big 12 last year.
Biggest strength(s): Quarterback, tight end, defensive line.
Tough to pick just one area here. Bradford didn't need to return to Norman and could have been financially set for life. The junior captured the Heisman Trophy last season and would have given Matthew Stafford a run for the No. 1 overall pick in April's NFL Draft. Stafford went on to sign a deal worth $78 million. Bradford's returning to college to try and win a BCS championship.
Bradford holds the OU record for career touchdown passes (86) in only two seasons. He led the nation last season in TD passes (50) and passing efficiency (180.84).
Gresham had some competition for best tight end in the Big 12 last year with Missouri's Chase Coffman and Oklahoma State's Brandon Pettigrew. This season, there's no doubt Gresham, who's coming off a junior campaign of 66 catches, 950 yards and 14 scores, is the best tight end in the conference and probably the country. Gresham should have a monster senior year; dependable receivers Juaquin Iglesias and Manuel Johnson are gone, so Bradford should be calling Gresham's number often.
OU's entire front four returns on the defensive line and could stack up against any in the country. McCoy, the unquestioned leader of the line, is an Outland Trophy candidate and Todd McShay's No. 7 overall mock pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. The junior produced 11 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks last year. And he played well in big games. McCoy sacked Texas star quarterback Colt McCoy twice, and intercepted Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.
Oklahoma also returns junior Adrian Taylor (4.5 sacks last season) at the other tackle spot, along with junior Jeremy Beal (8.5 sacks) and senior Auston English (4.5 sacks, injured part of season) on the ends.
Breakthrough player: Junior safety Quinton Carter.
Carter came on at the end of the year, earning starts against Kansas and Missouri (Big 12 Championship game). In limited snaps, Carter made a name for himself as a hard-hitting free safety. In fact, Carter — as a freshman — was reportedly ejected from practice one time for lighting up an OU wide receiver during a non-contact drill. Yikes. Here's Carter with a big-time hit on Jeremy Maclin in last year's Big 12 title game:
Coaching stability: It should be very strong, but here's what's working against Bob Stoops: He's lost five of OU's last six BCS games, including three BCS Championships. Reports surfaced toward the end of last season that OU fans were growing impatient with Stoops trying to win another BCS title.
But you can also turn it around this way: In the last ten years, how many coaches have played in four BCS Championships? Stoops on the hot seat for recent BCS troubles? Please. He's taken OU to the Big 12 title game in seven of his ten years, and he's won six of them by a combined score of 219-79.
Fearless forecast: 2nd in South.
Much like the Big 12 North, this was pretty much too close to pick. There's no best answer. Texas and Oklahoma will both be top 5 teams and could be two of the top three teams in the country (with Florida returning as No. 1).
To me, though, Texas has a schedule that sets up more favorably for a BCS Championship run, along with motivation from last year's three-way South tie, which saw the Longhorns sitting at home for the Big 12 Championship.
Stay tuned to KUSports.com for the final summer gridiron report on Friday, where I'll pick apart Texas, my predicted Big 12 South winner.
And as always, discuss.