DALLAS — Big 12 Media Days are upon us, beginning here Monday and kick starting the college football season.
In the Big 12 preseason poll released last week, Oklahoma was revealed as the clear pick to win its eighth conference title, receiving 32 of 41 first-place votes.
The Sooners' spot atop the preseason poll isn't surprising; still, there is plenty of uncertainty surrounding the team at key spots.
Here are five pressing questions facing the Sooners as we inch closer to the 2012 season opener on Sept. 1 at UTEP.
5. How effective will the Sooners' pass rush be without Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis?
OU recorded 40 sacks last season, tied for eighth in the country. But Alexander and Lewis, both All-Big 12 performers, are gone to the NFL.
Senior R.J. Washington, playing for an injured Lewis, demonstrated his potential with two sacks in last year's Insight Bowl. Washington was a highly touted prospect out of high school and will finally get his shot to start.
Senior David King will start at the other end spot after recording two sacks in backup duty last year.
4. Who will be the Sooners' primary ball carrier?
Former walk-on Dominique Whaley led OU with 627 rushing yards before his season ended five games early with a broken ankle. He missed spring practices, but indications are he'll be ready for his senior year.
If the injury doesn't linger and Whaley stays healthy, it would be a huge boost for OU and take major pressure off the passing game.
Junior Roy Finch matched Whaley's yards per carry in 2011 (5.5) and has shown flashes of his potential.
Brennan Clay will get touches, too, and fullback Trey Millard, mostly used as a blocking back, has shown he can also run with the ball if needed.
3. How much will the secondary improve under Mike Stoops?
The secondary was much maligned — and deservedly so — after losses to Texas Tech and Baylor last season, and gone is All-Big 12 cornerback Jamell Fleming.
Still, with Stoops' return to Norman as defensive coordinator and secondary coach, improvement could come rapidly. Stoops has emphasized a simplified defense.
Tony Jefferson has moved to a more traditional safety role, and Demontre Hurst returns after leading OU with 11 pass breakups last year.
Versatile Aaron Colvin could move back to corner after starting at safety last season. Javon Harris was intensely criticized last year, but coaches praised his effort and improvement in the spring and he is expected to start at safety.
2. Will the young receivers step up for quarterback Landry Jones?
Even with Ryan Broyles' departure, OU seemed to be in good shape at receiver just a few short months ago.
Jones spent the spring working with returners Kenny Stills, Trey Franks, Kameel Jackson and Jaz Reynolds — and true freshman star-to-be Trey Metoyer — before the post-spring indefinite suspensions of Franks, Jackson and Reynolds.
Stills is now the only receiver or tight end on the active roster with a career NCAA Division I reception. OU brings in several talented freshmen and junior-college transfers, but how long will it take for them to build rapport with Jones?
If Stills steps up as the unit's leader, as he has vowed to, and the newcomers are fast learners, OU could be in great shape after a few games.
But even with hard work and study through the summer and fall practices, nothing can replace game experience.
1. Can Jones bounce back and win over his critics?
Jones will, in all likelihood, leave Oklahoma with many of the school's major passing records. He's a four-year starter and has shown the potential for greatness.
Still, he remains the target of strong fan criticism. Jones' numbers dipped from his sophomore to junior seasons, he went three games without a touchdown pass late last year without Broyles and he's shown a propensity for the occasional head-scratching decision.
It didn't help that it often took Blake Bell and an electric-football strategy to get in the end zone late in the season.
There's no doubt Jones has the physical tools, intelligence and experience to perform at a high level in 2012, but his performance this year will be the most analyzed, criticized and scrutinized of any Sooner.
It will also be the most important to any Big 12 or national championship the Sooners dream of winning.