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Saturday, October 18, 2008
Pregame report from Norman

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

NORMAN, Okla. -- Good afternoon from Owen Field, where the talk-show fodder coming into the stadium concerned the demise of the Sooner dynasty.

Oklahoma twice blew double-digit leads last week before falling to Texas. And the remnants of that collapse are still resonating -- and smoldering -- more than seven days later.

Truthfully, the 5-1 Sooners haven't fallen that far. They are still No. 4 nationally -- the highest ranking of any one-loss team -- and are in good position to make a BCS charge if the national run of upsets continues.

All of that makes today's game against No. 16 Kansas critical for coach Bob Stoops and the Sooners. He's never lost the contest following a Texas game in his previous nine seasons and, he is heavily favored to extend his streak to double digits today.

But he'll be facing a significant challenge in Kansas, which has quietly crept into first place of the North Division after two wins to the start the season. The Jayhawks have won 17 of their last 19 games and will control their own destiny in the North race even if they lose today.

Coach Mark Mangino was an assistant head coach earlier in his coaching career with Stoops. It's always a special day when he returns to his old stomping grounds.

But he likely shouldn't expect much mercy from the Sooners because of his past association here -- especially considering what happened last week.

Here are some things I'll be watching as the game progresses:

Who fills in for Ryan Reynolds at middle linebacker for Oklahoma? Reynolds was the most capable linebacker the Sooners had, a heady playmaker who made the rest of his team better because of his acumen. The defense fell apart last week when he was lost. The easiest solution would be the insert Brandon Crow into the position, but he struggled badly last week. Redshirt freshman Austin Box also might get some snaps, but don't be surprised to see the Sooners spin 230-pound nickelback Nic Harris into the position. It might be the Sooners' best move trying to combat Kansas' air-heavy attack keyed by quarterback Todd Reesing.

Can Jake Sharp continue to run effectively? After barely playing in the first four games, Sharp has blossomed with two big efforts to help spark Kansas' quick start in conference play. Mangino still had to be convinced that the 190-pound Sharp can be more than a complimentary player, but his last two weeks were a pretty good indicator.

What gives in the pillow fight between Oklahoma's kick coverage and Kansas' return game? The Sooners have struggled all year, allowing 25.3 yards per return and two touchdowns. Stoops has promised more starters playing on special teams in order to boost speed and tackling ability.

The Sooners, however, likely won't be challenged by Kansas' sputtering kick return game. The Jayhawks are averaging only 12.38 yards per return to rank last nationally. That average, even with preseason All-Big 12 kick returner Marcus Herford in the mix, is nearly three yards below the next-lowest team in the rankings -- Kent State.

Is Kansas really ready for the big boys? The Jayhawks get their first crack against a ranked South Division foe today. Later in the season, the Jayhawks will host Texas Tech and Texas. Kansas avoided all three teams in a school-record 12-1 season last year that was capped by an Orange Bowl victory. We'll see how the Jayhawks match up with a traditional power from the other division in Saturday's game.

Kansas wide receiver Kerry Meier vs. the young Oklahoma cornerbacks. First-year Oklahoma starters Dominique Franks and Brian Jackson have played well to this point of the season, but will face a big test against Meier, a versatile and experienced player who is still listed as Kansas' backup quarterback. Meier runs exquisite routes and will challenge both players even though he's been hobbled recently.

INJURIES: The biggest for Oklahoma is Reynolds, who was already rehabbing earlier in the week. DeMarco Murray hasn't been the same back as last season, although Sooner coaches say he's in good shape. Defensive tackle DeMarcus Granger was back for the game last week, although he hasn't cracked the two-deep yet.

Kansas doesn't release injuries, although it's been clear in the last several games and during warm-ups that Meier has been hobbled. He missed several plays last week, but still produced nine receptions. Nose tackle Caleb Billingsley left the Colorado game with a leg injury and is questionable. Jamal Green and Darius Parish would fill in if he can't go. And starting guard Adrian Mayes missed the second half with an undisclosed injury, but should be ready to go today, Mangino said.

WEATHER: It's an ideal day for football here with nary a cloud in the sky. Temperatures should be in the mid-70s at kickoff and remain in the 70s during the rest of the afternoon.