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Oklahoma has faith in itself again

DALLAS -- Most college football coaches would cringe at the thought of one of their players declaring his team a national championship contender.

Not Oklahoma's Bob Stoops.

After Sooners linebacker Travis Lewis told a room full of reporters at the Big 12's media days that it is "championship or bust" this season for OU, Stoops seemed to embrace his star player's bold prediction.

"We have high expectations, and I don't shy away from them," Stoops told a group of OU boosters earlier this month. "My feeling is it is about time. We need to win one."

It's been 10 years since Oklahoma last won a BCS national championship. OU squandered chances to win national titles in the 2003 and 2004 seasons, and then lost to Florida 24-14 in the 2009 BCS National Championship Game.

After losing star quarterback Sam Bradford, the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner, and a handful of other players to injuries, Oklahoma slipped to 8-5 in 2009. The Sooners went 12-2 last season, winning a Big 12 title and routing Connecticut 48-20 in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

With eight starters coming back on offense and seven on defense, Oklahoma is No. 1 in the preseason coaches' poll heading into the 2011 season.

"If we're No. 1, we need to play like we're the No. 1 team in the country," quarterback Landry Jones said. "At Oklahoma, we have the talent year in and year out to be at the BCS title game. It depends on how we play each week."

Fostering that kind of mindset has been Stoops' biggest task lately. When Stoops was hired at Oklahoma in 1999, he inherited a program that hadn't produced a winning season from 1994 to 1998. The Sooners went through three coaches -- Gary Gibbs, Howard Schnellenberger and John Blake -- before finally finding stability in the post-Barry Switzer era under Stoops.

Switzer guided the Sooners to three national championships during his 16-year tenure from 1973 to 1988, equaling legendary OU coach Bud Wilkinson's total from 1947 to 1963.

We have high expectations, and I don't shy away from them. My feeling is it is about time. We need to win one.

-- OU coach Bob Stoops

Stoops said his first task at Oklahoma was convincing his players they were good enough to compete for championships, like the OU teams before them had done.

"The difference then was we had something to prove," Stoops said. "They had seen all these Bud Wilkinson [and] Barry Switzer teams and all these great players on the wall. This was our tradition that we hadn't been doing. We had lost that and so we had something to prove. We were bound and determined to do it, to live up to what we're supposed to do at Oklahoma."

After going 7-5 in his first season in 1999, Stoops guided the Sooners to a 13-0 record in 2000, including a 13-2 victory over Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

"The 2000 team, I didn't have any inkling going in, to be honest with you," Stoops said. "I had a couple of things I was excited about, the leadership of [quarterback] Josh Heupel and his ability. We just got really fortunate in so many young players playing so well. Then it got to a point in the middle [and] end of the year that you had this feeling you couldn't lose."

Since then, Stoops said, many of his teams believed they were entitled to win. Oklahoma lost its edge more than anything else.

"You have a couple other years where you're competing for the national championship or winning the Big 12," Stoops said. "Sometimes you get some kids come in and they feel entitled. So I go from trying to convince them in 2000 that we do deserve to do this and we are good enough to do it to a few years later saying: 'Wait a second, you haven't done anything. Why would you expect to do this, until you've earned it?' That's what you are fighting."

Stoops said he doesn't believe he'll have to fight that sense of entitlement this season. Many of his returning players were on the 2009 team that struggled mightily before rebounding last year.

"I have a great feeling about the attitude and chemistry of the team," Stoops said.

Sooners wide receiver Ryan Broyles said OU's players aren't the only ones who are excited about the upcoming season. Broyles also senses renewed energy in his coach.

"People didn't think we'd do well after we lost Sam Bradford," Broyles said. "We had a down year and then came back. I've seen Coach Stoops around the locker room more than ever before."

Jones, a junior from Artesia, N.M., is a big reason for Oklahoma's lofty expectations. Last season, he completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 4,718 yards with 38 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

"He had some really big games down the last stretch of the season," Stoops said. "He's just become a really strong leader and now he's more comfortable. I think the quarterback needs to be a leader. If he hasn't played and earned the respect by performance and meeting challenges and doesn't have the confidence yet, it's hard to be that guy. Well, he has all of that now. He's a true leader on this team and a special one."

Lewis, who will miss up to eight weeks after breaking a bone in his left foot in practice last week, called Jones "a national championship-caliber quarterback."

"This whole team has faith in him," Lewis said.

Most importantly, Stoops believes the Sooners have faith in themselves again.

"Sometimes it is harder to keep doing it," Stoops said. "Going into this season, though, after so many years and with the number of guys back, we expect [to do] it. But it's really convincing them to expect to work first. The work is what gets it done, and you have to have that attitude of something to prove to get it done and to finish it off."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.