August 12, 2016

Oklahoma will learn quickly whether it has what it takes to return to the College Football Playoff.

The Sooners made a surprising run to win the Big 12 title last season before losing to Clemson in the national semifinals. Now, with much of the key talent returning from that 11-2 squad, Oklahoma is poised to finish the job.

The Sooners will be tested immediately when they open with Houston at Reliant Stadium on Sept. 3. Two weeks later, they will host Ohio State in one of the season's biggest games.

''There's two of the teams in the top 12-13 in the country, and deservedly so,'' Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said of Houston and Ohio State. ''Excellent football teams.''

In conference play, the Sooners will play at TCU on Oct. 1, then will play Texas in Dallas the following week. If the Sooners can get past the second weekend of October unscathed, they'll be in position to have some margin for error if they fall later in the season.

''Our season, the front part of it is very loaded up,'' quarterback Baker Mayfield said. ''We have been preparing to be ready for the season at the very beginning. We can't have any rust to knock off. We have to go in ready to play, and that's how we're treating camp right now.''

Here are some things to watch for this season.

HEISMAN HYPE: Mayfield, one of the nation's most exciting and innovative players, finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting last season after passing for 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns.

He is still striving for improvement.

''My work ethic has been the same, if not even harder,'' he said. ''I've been pushing myself and I need those guys to see that, because if they were to see me taking a day off or just saying, `Oh, I've got it figured out,' that wouldn't be good for the program. So I've been working hard and that's how I expect the other guys to do it, too.''

REPLACING STRIKER: Eric Striker was one of Oklahoma's all-time leaders in sacks from the outside linebacker slot, but he's now in the NFL. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, a 6-foot-2, 245-pound redshirt junior, is in line to fill the void.

''He is getting his opportunity,'' defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. ''He's played in certain situations the last two years. He's very fast and explosive. Great rusher.''

RECEIVING THREATS: Sterling Shepard, one of the school's top three all-time receivers in most categories, has gone to the NFL.

Dede Westbrook, last year's No. 2 receiver, had 46 catches for 743 yards last season. Mark Andrews, an All-Big 12 selection last season, had 19 grabs, but seven touchdowns. They are the most likely players to receive an uptick in targets. Geno Lewis, a transfer from Penn State, should be a factor.

JOE MIXON: The explosive running back burst onto the scene last season with 1,119 all-purpose yards last season. He was one of the conference's top all-around threats, and now that Shepard is gone, he'll be expected to do more as a playmaker. Bob Stoops said Mixon could have a bigger role in the passing game.

LINCOLN RILEY: The 32-year-old offensive coordinator was given a huge raise in the offseason for helping to make the Sooners one of the nation's most productive and balanced offenses. Oklahoma struggled out of the gate last season as the team got used to his version of the Air Raid. Now, the Sooners are comfortable, and Riley has had time to tinker.

SEASON OPENER: Sept. 3 vs. Houston at Reliant Stadium.

PREDICTION: 12-0 regular season, Big 12 champion.


Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter (at)CliffBruntAP .

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