August 26, 2014

(AP) - The Oklahoma Sooners are boldly talking about playing for a national title.

''It's where you want to be,'' quarterback Trevor Knight said. ''You look at the walls all around this place, that's what's happened before and where we want to be this year.''

There's plenty of reason for confidence. The fourth-ranked Sooners capped off a strong finish to last season with a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl that energized the rabid fan base. Oklahoma now must back up the excitement it has generated, starting Saturday at home against Louisiana Tech.

Coach Bob Stoops is walking a fine line. On one hand, he likes the idea of carrying the momentum from the Sugar Bowl into this season. On the other, he feels the Sooners need to remain hungry and look forward.

''I don't ever buy into whatever you did last year means you're going to do this year,'' he said. ''Some of the parts you feel good about are the number of guys that are back. It's still going to be different in some areas, and it has to come together. You earn your stripes every year.''

Senior Blake Bell said the Sooners have put in the time to be great.

''This year seems like it could be a special year,'' he said. ''I've been here for four summers, and coming into this one, it just feels like something's different."

Especially for Bell. He played his first three seasons at quarterback before giving way to Knight, who as a redshirt freshman threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns to earn MVP honors in the 45-31 win over Alabama.

Bell won the starting tight end job in camp, and the 6-foot-6, 260-pounder is expected to contribute in the passing game in another fashion.

''He's really a big, comfortable target for any quarterback when he's in the middle of the field,'' Stoops said. ''He's got great hands. The different lifting and training from quarterback to tight end here through the year has helped him get stronger and bigger.''

Despite the lofty expectations, the Sooners have some issues as well. Linebacker Frank Shannon won't play in the opener and he could be suspended for the entire season after a university panel found him guilty of sexual misconduct.

Though a district court granted Shannon an injunction after he sued, Stoops seemingly had no plans to allow Shannon to play and will start Jordan Evans in Shannon's place.

"At this point, nothing has changed," Stoops said. "That situation is unresolved. Therefore I have to proceed with players I know are going to be available. I'm not going to say anything else in regard to that."

Also, Dorial Green-Beckham will not be allowed to play this season after the NCAA denied the school's request for a waiver that would have made the talented wide receiver eligible to play immediately after transferring from Missouri.

Green-Beckham was dismissed from the Tigers' program in April after several off-the-field issues and would have been one of the top targets for Knight this season had the waiver been granted.

Oklahoma also lost its top two rushers from last season in Brennan Clay and Damien Williams. Alex Ross and Keith Ford are the top returnees, but they combined for just 26 carries last season and Stoops said freshman Samaje Perine will have his chance to get plenty of opportunities.

"Both Alex Ross and Keith Ford are very close," Stoops said. "(Perine) is behind both of those guys on the depth chart, but he's a guy that we really like what he's doing."

Despite the absence of Shannon, the Sooners are hoping to have just as strong of a defense as the one that led the Big 12 in total yards allowed at 350.2 per game.

''There are signs we can be a better defense than we were a year ago, but again, it's a whole `nother year,'' defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. ''We have to start at ground zero and work this group into a position that can consistently compete each time we step on the field.''

Louisiana Tech, coming off a 4-8 season, will look to new quarterback Cody Sokol to help lead its offense into a tough contest. Sokol, a fifth-year transfer from Iowa, beat out sophomore Ryan Higgins in camp.

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