The Bob Stoops era came to a sudden end in May, but new coach and the FBS’ youngest, Lincoln Riley, still has Heisman Trophy hopeful Baker Mayfield and plenty more talented players to make a return trip to the College Football Playoff after a one-year absence. With a big rematch at Ohio State pending Sept. 9, the eighth-ranked Sooners will likely use their home opener Saturday with UTEP as a tune-up for the No. 2 Buckeyes.
Stoops recorded 190 wins during his 18-year run at Oklahoma, winning a national title and finishing AP top-5 on six other occasions, but the 33-year-old Riley has built one of the most potent offenses in college football over the past two years as offensive coordinator. After embarrassing losses to Ohio State and Houston early last season, the Sooners won their final 10 contests, capping the campaign with a 35-19 victory over Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. Mayfield, who was arrested for public intoxication and fleeing arrest in February, returns for a third season at the helm of Riley’s “Air Raid” offense after passing for 7,665 yards and 76 touchdowns against 15 interceptions the past two seasons and finishing inside the top four in the Heisman race each season. Oklahoma also has the best returning offensive line in the conference but will need to find replacements for running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon as well as wideout Dede Westbrook, who combined for 2,435 yards rushing and 2,168 receiving yards last season.
TV: 3:30 p.m. ET, Fox. LINE: Oklahoma -42.5.
ABOUT UTEP (2016: 4-8): The Miners are led by Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award candidate Ryan Metz, who completed 64.7 percent of his passes as a sophomore last season with 14 TDs and just four interceptions in 11 games - seven starts. The Miners will have to replace running back Aaron Jones (1,773 rushing yards 20 total TDs) but feature one of the top offensive lines in Conference USA, led by guard Will Hernandez, who was named to the Outland Trophy watch list this summer. Senior linebackers Alvin Jones and Dante Lovilette, who combined for 182 tackles a season ago, lead a defense which yielded 34.9 points per game and recorded just 14 sacks.
ABOUT OKLAHOMA (2016: 11-2): The leading returning rusher is running back Abdul Adams (283 yards), but fellow sophomore Rodney Anderson - a former four-star recruit who has endured leg and neck injuries since joining the Sooners - had a solid spring and fall practice. Tight end Mark Andrews (31 catches, 489 yards) is the leading returning receiver, but Mykel Jones, Jeffery Mead, Jordan Smallwood and A.D. Miller (40 combined receptions in 2016) along with Kentucky transfer Jeff Badet (31 catches, SEC-leading 21.6 yards per catch) will look to fill the void left by Westbrook and Geno Lewis. The Sooners ranked 82nd in FBS in total defense last season, giving up 432 yards per game, but defensive coordinator Mike Stoops’ crew yielded just 19.7 points in its last six contests after surrendering 36.7 points in the first seven.
1. Oklahoma is 3-0 all-time against UTEP with an average margin of victory of 42 points, and the Sooners are 20-0 all-time against current teams from C-USA.
2. Oklahoma’s 10-game winning streak is the nation’s longest among Power-5 programs.
3. Mayfield set an NCAA record for single-season passing efficiency last year (196.4) while leading FBS in completion percentage (70.9) and ESPN’s QBR (91.8).
PREDICTION: Oklahoma 63, UTEP 7