Oklahoma football: What fans should be watching for in season opener

TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 6: The Oklahoma Sooners offensive line emerges from a huddle against the Alabama Crimson Tide on September 6, 2003 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images).
TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 6: The Oklahoma Sooners offensive line emerges from a huddle against the Alabama Crimson Tide on September 6, 2003 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images). /

The long wait and anticipation for another season of Oklahoma football is now down to a matter of hours.

It is season three of the Lincoln Riley era, and if the forthcoming one is anything like the first two — and the national consensus is there is every indication it will be — Sooner fans should be beyond anxious for the action to finally get underway.

Past performance offers a nice reflection of what can be, but that is all it is, a look backward. College football is a process of constantly moving forward. The programs that are most successful are the ones that are willing to adjust to changing conditions and continually trying to get better, not just during the season, but most importantly in the eight easily busy offseason months that precede every new season.

That’s why every season is different. The new seasons brings new faces with transfers and the indoctrination of a new group of incoming recruits, often new members of the coaching staff and position and system adjustments due to departures. All of this applies to the Sooners as they prepare to kickoff a new season.

Sunday night’s season opener with Houston marks the first time Oklahoma has opened the season in prime time on Sunday with a national television audience. As the only college game on the schedule at that time, the Sooners will have the opportunity to showcase their program for college football fans and prospective recruits across the country.

Houston is not your typical season-opening non-conference rummy. The Cougars tied for first place in the American Athletic Conference West Division last season, and have one of the country’s most athletic and versatile quarterbacks. Because of that, Houston poses a solid first-game challenge for the 2019 Sooner squad.

It’s also relevant to note that Houston upset then third-ranked Oklahoma, 33-23, in the opening game of the 2016 season.

Which brings us around to five things that OU football fans should look for in Sunday’s season opener at home that will offer an early indication of how the 2019 season is going to play out for the four-time defending Big 12 champion Sooners:

How will Jalen Hurts fit in as the new commander of Lincoln Riley’s Air Raid offense?

In three championship seasons at Alabama, Jalen Hurts was considered more of a run-first quarterback than a passer, although he threw for over 5,600 yards and 48 touchdowns. His completion percentage improved nearly 10 percentage points from his freshman to his junior season (from 62.8 to 72.8), and the OU coaches say he is more accurate than the media gives him credit for. He did complete 11 of 14 passes for 174 yards in the OU spring game.

Oklahoma Sooners Football
Oklahoma Sooners Football /

Oklahoma Sooners Football

Unlike Kyler Murray’s quickness and elusiveness, Hurts is built more like at halfback, which makes him hard to bring down when he gets up a head of steam. The Alabama transfer has had eight months now to become acclimated into OU offensive system, and with his big-game experience, having played in three consecutive College Football Playoff championship games, he should be comfortable enough to step right in and run the offense with high proficiency. That is the expectation when Hurts and the offense are on the field on Sunday.

Will four new starters on the OU offensive line noticeably change the look and efficiency of the offense?

The one thing that could slow down the prolific Oklahoma offense is a rebuilt offensive line that features four new starters this season. The Sooners had the best offensive line in college football last season, which is a big reason the offense led the nation in scoring and total offense a year ago. It will take some time for the new offensive line, anchored by returning sophomore center Creed Humphrey, to become fully comfortable playing together. They should get stronger as the season goes on, but Sooner fans will be interested to see how well the new O-line grouping performs in its first real game action.

The Sooners will debut a new punter and placekicker this season

After four seasons in which one player, Austin Seibert, handled all of the kicking responsibilities, OU will begin a new era this season, going back to the more traditional approach of splitting the placekicking and punting duties. Seibert set a new NCAA record for career points scored (kicking extra points and field goals) and was especially strong reaching the end zone on kickoffs, with 64 percent of his kicks resulting in touchbacks.

Field goal accuracy can be a huge factor deciding the outcome of games, especially games that are close at the end. Redshirt sophomore Gabe Brkic is expected to handle the placekicking chores this season, and redshirt sophomore Reaves Mundschau will do the punting Mundschau was rated as the nation’s No. 2 punter coming out of high school in New Braunfels, Texas.

New defensive coordinator Alex Grinch wants the defense to be more aggressive

All eyes will be on new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch this fall in the hope that he can effect a turnaround in the Sooners deplorable defensive performance in recent seasons. He and Lincoln Riley have been cautioning everyone to expect evolutionary and not revolutionary changes. It may take a year or two before Grinch has the players in place who are best fits for his defensive plan. In the meantime, fans will be interested to see if a change of attitude and direction can at least get the defensive performance back to a more respectable level.

The first telltale sign of improvement is how a more aggressive style of defense will lead to more takeaways (interceptions and forced fumbles). A couple of takeaways in the Houston game would be a big step in the right direction.

Which of the new blue-chip freshman receivers will see action and how will they perform?

Oklahoma may have the most talented and deepest receiver room among Power Five teams. Nineteen different Sooner players caught passes last season and 15 of those return in 2019. In addition, the 2019 OU recruiting class included three five-star receiving prospects, each of which is capable of making an immediate impact. We’re talking about the No. 1, 3 and 4 wide receivers nationally, according to Rivals.

It will be interesting to see who sees action against Houston among the freshman trio of Jadon Hasselwood, Theo Wease and Trejan Bridges and who emerges the quickest as the real deal from this blue-chip group.