OU faces many questions in 2013

NORMAN, Okla. -- In 2008, Sam Bradford quarterbacked Oklahoma's record-setting offense all the way to the BCS national championship game.

Not since have the Sooners contended for a national title. Not past October, at least.

And Friday night's 41-13 loss to Texas A&M in the AT&T Cotton Bowl showed just how far OU is from being a true contender again.

With little hope of that changing anytime soon, either.

OU will go into 2013 without its record-setting quarterback, two of its best receivers and several of its best defenders off a defense that was a disaster anyway the second half of the season.

The schedule will be unforgiving, as well.

In September, OU returns a visit to Notre Dame, which could be the defending national champion. The Sooners finish the regular season with a trip to Oklahoma State, which took the Sooners to the brink in Norman this season and blasted them the year before in Stillwater. The Sooners also have to deal with potentially troublesome November road tilts at Baylor and Kansas State. All told, 11 of OU's 12 opponents in 2013 will be coming off bowl appearances.

The good news is that the offense could be explosive again, even facing a makeover without quarterback Landry Jones. Assuming he wins the starting job to replace Jones, Blake Bell's mobility will give the Sooners an element they haven't had in years. If coordinator Josh Heupel tailors the offense to Bell's skill set, the Sooners will be running more zone-read, while operating less out of four-wide sets.

The "Belldozer" will still have plenty of weapons to work with in the passing game, even without leading receiver Kenny Stills, who, a source told ESPN on Sunday, will enter the NFL draft. Wideout Jalen Saunders, OU's most efficient receiver the second half of the season, returns. So does slot man Sterling Shepard, who as OU's fourth receiving option had a fabulous true freshman season with 45 receptions. The Sooners will have to mine another outside receiver to take the place of Justin Brown, but Trey Metoyer and Durron Neal were highly recruited receivers who have shown flashes.

Tailbacks Damien Williams and Brennan Clay -- who combined for 1,500 rushing yards in 2012 -- also both come back, as does fullback Trey Millard, who averaged 6 yards per rush and 11.2 yards per reception.

Bell and that trio of backs will be operating behind an offensive line that welcomes back four starters and a bevy of key reserves. Center Gabe Ikard is coming off another All-Big 12 campaign, and he'll be flanked by veteran guards Adam Shead, Bronson Irwin and three-year starter Tyler Evans, who will rejoin the team after sitting out this season with a torn ACL. The Sooners should be solid again at tackle, as well, with Daryl Williams and Tyrus Thompson.

Bell should help the Sooners improve on a running attack that was too inconsistent against the likes of Kansas State, Notre Dame and Texas A&M, which overpowered OU's offensive line in the second half.

Then again, offense has been the least of OU's worries of late. Despite changing coordinators in the offseason, the Sooners finished outside the top 50 nationally in total defense for the third consecutive year and gave up more than 40 points in three of their final four games.

The scary part? On paper, OU could head into 2013 with potentially its worst defense since Bob Stoops' first season in Norman.

In 2000, OU won the national championship because of its defense. In 2012, OU scrambled to 10 wins in spite of its defense, and it's difficult to envision 2013 changing that.

With free safety Tony Jefferson opting to enter the NFL draft, coordinator Mike Stoops will be tasked with not only having to remake a defensive line that got pushed around in 2012, but replenishing his secondary. Given what is returning, neither commission offers any easy answers.

The Sooners are hopeful that All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin will at least come back for his senior season. But even if he returns, the rest of the secondary will be untested and inexperienced. Jefferson and outgoing cornerback Demontre Hurst were both three-year starters, and outgoing Javon Harris manned the other safety spot the last two years. The Sooners were so thin at safety that former walk-on Jesse Paulsen had to fill the backup role at both spots.

But as dire as things might look in the secondary, they're far more tenuous up front. OU loses four of its top five players off a defensive line that was, at best, average in 2012. The Sooners ranked 94th nationally in run defense, giving up 344 on the ground to West Virginia's Tavon Austin and another 229 Friday to Johnny Manziel. Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle and Kansas State's Collin Klein also skewered OU's beleaguered front with big games rushing.

The Sooners were equally as poor disrupting opposing offenses with pressure and negative plays, ranking 108th nationally in tackles for loss and 69th in sacks. Nowhere was OU's mediocrity on the defensive line more evident than in the Cotton Bowl, when Manziel had eight or nine seconds on some plays to throw the ball.

Now, Mike Stoops will have to fill out his defensive line with only one returning defensive tackle with any experience in Jordan Phillips, who played just sparingly as OU's fourth tackle this season. The Sooners are in much better shape at end, but there doesn't appear to be anyone of All-Big 12 caliber, at least not next season.

Linebacker is a problem spot, too. Two-year starter Tom Wort lost much of his playing time to freshman Frank Shannon, and became increasingly frustrated in Mike Stoops' gap scheme, which channeled tackles back to the safeties. Showing a lack of confidence in his linebackers to cover the pass, Mike Stoops leaned on six- and even seven-defensive back schemes in November, which ultimately allowed opponents to gash the Sooners in the running game. Adding insult to injury, OU also lost its top linebacker commitment for the incoming recruiting class, ESPN 300 prospect Jordan Mastrogiovanni, to Texas A&M on Sunday.

Despite the defensive woes and the embarrassing loss to the Aggies, Bob Stoops was quick to point out Friday night during his postgame press conference that the Sooners had made marked improvement from 2011 to this season.

Yet that still wasn't good enough for the Sooners to contend for a national title. Given what lies ahead, it's hard to see 2013 being any different.