NORMAN — Like its conference as a whole, Oklahoma is tough to make definitive projections about entering the 2013 season.
The Big 12 Conference lost most of its elite quarterbacks from last season, leaving lots of question marks surrounding the league's traditionally prolific offenses. The league's wide-open nature was evident in the preseason Big 12 media poll, in which six different teams received first-place votes.
The Sooners, meanwhile, will trot out their first new starting quarterback since 2009 and return few defensive starters from 2012.
I've said many times in the last few months that I can see OU clinching a ninth Big 12 title and BCS berth in 2013, and can just as easily envision the Sooners finishing with a 7-5 regular-season record and in the bottom half of the final conference standings.
Here are three reasons OU could return to a BCS bowl for the first time since 2010, and three reasons it could be in for a disappointing 2013 campaign.
A potentially dominant rushing attack
Oklahoma returns four senior running backs, each of whom is capable of carrying the load should that become necessary. Damien Williams and Brennan Clay were the top rushers a year ago, but fullback Trey Millard has shown he's capable of big things with the ball in his hands, and Roy Finch — seemingly out of the coaches' doghouse — can be electrifying.
Plus, the Sooners return five offensive linemen with significant experience and lots of career starts. OU also added junior-college transfers Tony Feo, Dionte Savage and Josiah St. John, all of whom are talented enough to push for playing time or even starts.
New energy with new coaches
OU coach Bob Stoops fired three assistant coaches in February, sending shock waves through a Sooner Nation not used to that kind of staff turnover.
But Stoops replaced them with offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery and special teams coordinator/tight ends coach Jay Boulware. The three bring new, fresh ideas into the program, and could even energize the returning coaches.
Mike Stoops' (second) sophomore campaign
Mike Stoops led dominant OU defenses during his first run as the Sooners' defensive coordinator from 1999-2003, when he did such a great job that Arizona hired him as its head coach.
After his seven-season run with the Wildcats ended in 2011, he returned to his brother's staff in Norman, exciting fans who wanted a return to those early-2000s Sooner defenses.
OU played well defensively through the first part of the season, but fell apart late against the high-powered, spread offenses of Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.
Mike Stoops has admitted feeling somewhat helpless during that run, but after a year to digest what Big 12 offenses have become in his absence, Stoops might be in a better position to handle them in Year 2.
A new quarterback
Whoever emerges from the Sooners' quarterback battle — Blake Bell or Trevor Knight — will have a strong, talented offense around them that could make the transition easier.
Still, the most important position in football always comes with growing pains, and if Bell or Knight struggles in the role, it could mean trouble for Oklahoma's championship goals in 2013.
Departed four-year starter Landry Jones broke virtually every passing record in program history, but never won over many Oklahoma fans. Those same Sooner supporters might find themselves missing Jones when it's all said and done.
An inexperienced defense
Mike Stoops might have a year under his belt in the new Big 12, but how much will that be offset with a whole new cast of characters on his 2013 defense?
Senior cornerback Aaron Colvin has All-America potential, but other than that? The Sooners bring back senior defensive back Gabe Lynn, who's shown flashes but been inconsistent in a variety of roles throughout his career; junior defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue, a defensive end-turned-tackle; and senior linebacker Corey Nelson, who is incredibly talented but rarely played late last season, when OU linebackers became largely irrelevant.
Oklahoma could find itself relying heavily on lots of newcomers on defense, and against Big 12 offenses, that could be a big problem.
Defensive line questions
Other than Ndulue, the Sooners' defensive front is filled with inexperience. Junior defensive end Geneo Grissom switched to tight end and back last season, and now is a likely starter.
Raw sophomore Charles Tapper appears set to start at the other end spot.
The unit got a big boost by the arrival of junior-college transfer tackle Quincy Russell last week, but after missing the spring, summer and most of fall camp, how much can he really help early in the season?