- Brandon Chatmon, ESPN Staff Writer
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It’s football time in Oklahoma.
The Sooners open the season against Louisiana Tech on Saturday with an eye on cementing a spot in the College Football Playoff derby in 2014. Here are five key stats to keep an eye on.
Sooners yards per carry average: It is important for the Sooners to replace last year’s trio of seniors — Brennan Clay, Roy Finch, Damien Williams — with another solid running game. Oklahoma averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2013 and leaned on its running game to carry a Sooners’ offense that averaged 199.1 passing yards per contest. Keith Ford and Alex Ross will get the first chance to prove they can handle the bulk of the carries, but they could be looking over their shoulders at true freshman Samaje Perine. Between the three of them, Oklahoma should hope to, at the very least, match last year’s yards-per-carry average against Louisiana Tech.
Trevor Knight’s completion percentage: Knight’s 59-percent completion rate from 2013 isn’t going to get it done if the Sooners expect to earn a College Football Playoff berth. The good news for Sooners fans is Knight had a 67.1 completion percentage in the final five games of the 2013 season. So if he can mimic his strong play at the end of the season, Oklahoma could be in business. It starts against Louisiana Tech, so the Sooners should hope Knight can complete 65 percent of his throws on Saturday.
Sooners’ second leading receiver: Nobody’s worried about Knight finding a No. 1 target. Sterling Shepard should fill that role with ease. But Oklahoma needs at least one more consistent target to emerge in the offense alongside Shepard. It feels like now or never for junior Durron Neal, who stepped on campus with as much acclaim as Shepard. Redshirt freshman K.J. Young joins Shepard and Neal in the starting lineup and could become a key playmaker if he fulfills the promise he’s shown during his 12 months on campus. Tight end Blake Bell could also emerge as a legitimate No. 2 option. It doesn’t really matter who it is, but someone needs to show signs they will be a trustworthy target for Knight against Louisiana Tech by hauling in at least five receptions.
Tackles for loss: The Sooners defense was good in 2013, but it could be dominant in 2014 if it can make more tackles for loss. Oklahoma finished seventh in the Big 12 with 73 tackles for loss, an average of 5.6 per game. If the Sooners can record at least seven tackles for loss against Louisiana Tech, it would be a sign that the defense can create more chaos in opponents' backfields this season, which could be the perfect recipe for a College Football Playoff berth.
Third-down conversion rate: Oklahoma must get better on third down if they plan to compete for a national championship. The Sooners converted just 39.5 percent of their third-down attempts a year ago, ranking 69th among FBS teams. It’s no coincidence the Sooners were 7-0 last season when their conversion rate was 40 percent or higher, including victories over Alabama, Kansas State and Texas Tech. Thus, converting 45 percent of their third-down attempts should be the goal on Saturday.
4dJake Trotter and Brandon Chatmon