August 30, 2016

A year ago, under new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma's schedule allowed them to ease into things especially on that side of the ball.

The Sooners started the season with Akron before moving on to a much more difficult task: going to Tennessee in the second week.

This season, there won't be a chance to steadily ramp things up as No. 3 Oklahoma starts off with No. 15 Houston on Saturday at NRG Stadium before playing No. 6 Ohio State at home two weeks later.

"If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best," Sooners cornerback Dakota Austin said. "If you can pop it off and just get it out of the way, you know what you'll bring to it.

"It's a great opportunity to show what you're worth early in the season. Once we get in conference play, we can capitalize on that."

Houston, one of the top candidates outside the Power 5 to crash the playoff party after a 13-1 season capped with a New Year's Eve destruction of Florida State, no longer looks at itself as the underdog. The Cougars view the opener as a must-win to give the January dream any prayer of coming true.

"We've raised the bar so high and our internal expectations of the culture around here ... What's the saying? We've created a monster," Herman said. "And you've got to feed the monster."

Oklahoma has aspirations of returning to the College Football Playoff, where they were beaten in the semifinals by Clemson to end last season. That 37-17 loss in the Orange Bowl -- the Sooners' second consecutive bowl loss to the Tigers -- has been a focus for Oklahoma throughout the offseason.

"Losing to the same team twice, two years in a row, there's definitely a chip on our shoulder," Austin said. "We know how far we can go. We know how close we have gotten by not even playing our best. We're really focused on that this offseason and I feel like we'll have a way better team this year."

In order for that to be a possibility, Oklahoma needs a strong start.

Riley's task figures to be easier, having figured out how to utilize running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon into his wide-open offense and with quarterback Baker Mayfield and his two tackles on the offensive line returning. Perine, a junior, needs just 1,057 yards to become Oklahoma's all-time leading rusher, passing Billy Sims.

But Riley is guarding against complacency.

"You can't feel comfortable here," Riley said. "If I feel comfortable, I'd be selling my house here in a year. You don't feel comfortable at this place. That's how you want it though. That's what I want. I want a place where you expect to win. Last year's over. None of that matters. We have to go win games this year. We have one of the toughest schedules in the country that we have to get ready to go attack."

Sooners coach Bob Stoops said that while his players might use last year as motivation, it's not something he considers.

"I don't tie years together; I never have," Stoops said. "If they were living off the past they sure got woke up in the Orange Bowl. That was all over on that night. Point being: years, in my mind, don't tie together. You have new people, new guys in new positions, different schedule. It's a whole new thing."

Oklahoma leads the series with Houston 2-0, winning the last meeting 63-13 in Norman in 2004. The other meeting came in the 1981 Sun Bowl which the Sooners won 40-14.

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