DALLAS — Before Oklahoma won its first Big 12 title in 2000, and went on to the win the national championship that season, coach Bob Stoops had no idea how good his second year there would be.
DALLAS — The Oklahoma Sooners are still trying to come to grips with the offseason death of linebacker Austin Box.
“The hurt’s still there, you miss him, the players do, and you had a young guy that was really a character that everyone gravitated to and was a friend that is now gone,” coach Bob Stoops said Tuesday. “It’s just something you never forget. You have to keep putting one foot in front of the other though and keep moving forward.”
Box, who would have been a senior this season, died May 19. The Oklahoma medical examiner’s office two weeks ago ruled Box’s death accidental after a preliminary toxicology report showed there were five prescription painkillers and an anti-anxiety drug in his system when he died.
Stoops said when the team will address how to move ahead without forgetting Box when it gathers next week for the start of fall practice. But the coach said during the Big 12 media day that he’s still not exactly sure how he will handle that.
The Sooners will wear Box’s No. 12 on the back of their helmets this season in memory of their teammate.
Senior linebacker Travis Lewis described Box as one of his best friends.
“My main thing is with my faith, I stopped asking why a long time ago, and placed it in God’s hands and know that everything happens for a reason,” Lewis said. “He’s still giving us gifts to this day, he’s motivating us, he makes everybody know not to live for tomorrow, but live for today. And he’s brought our team closer together.”
– The Associated Press
That was the first of seven conference titles over the past 11 seasons when there were still 12 teams in the league.
Now in the new-look Big 12, with 10 teams playing a round-robin schedule instead of in divisions, there would be little surprise if the Sooners quickly add another trophy. The defending champions are overwhelming favorite to win the league again — and maybe more.
“Our offense is high powered, our defense brings a lot of playmakers back. It’s a good combination,” linebacker Travis Lewis said Tuesday as Big 12 media days wrapped up. “But right now all we are is potential. We’ve got to go out there and play.”
The Sooners, who closed last season with a five-game winning streak that included wins against now-departed Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game and a 48-20 win against Connecticut in the Fiesta Bowl, got 41 of 43 first-place votes in a preseason poll from media members who cover the league.
“This team has had a good attitude and a good chemistry,” Stoops said. “They did a year ago, they carried it through the winter and the spring. We’ll see where it goes with us.”
Those feelings, bolstered by Lewis’ sentiment, are good for a coach who in some seasons sensed that his teams felt entitled because of the long-term success at Oklahoma.
Stoops went from trying to convince his team that it was good enough to win in 2000, after the Sooners had some down seasons before he arrived, to a few years later reminding certain groups they hadn’t done anything to feel that way.
“Now going into this season, though, after so many years and with the number of guys back, we expect it,” Stoops said. “It’s really convincing them expect to work first. … And you have to have that attitude of something to prove to get it done, to finish it off.”
Landry Jones, the starting quarterback who followed Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford at Oklahoma, trumped his impressive freshman season by throwing for a Big 12-high 4,718 yards and 38 touchdowns while setting school records with 405 completions and 617 attempts last year.
“He got a couple of years under his belt and I think this is finally his time,” Lewis said. “I definitely think he’s a national championship caliber-winning quarterback and this whole team has faith in him.”
When Jones was asked about the perception by many that he took significant steps in his leadership of the team during the closing stretch last season, the quarterback certainly didn’t disagree.
“Definitely in that Oklahoma State game, the Big 12 championship game and then the Fiesta Bowl, I was able to take some big strides for me as a player,” he said. “I’ve kind of learned from Sam, kind of learned from people before me, talking to coach Heupel, him dealing with those expectations what it takes to lead a team through that.”
Josh Heupel, the Sooners quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator, was the quarterback for Stoops’ 2000 national championship team.
Jones threw for 468 yards and four touchdowns in the regular season finale against Oklahoma State. Then Oklahoma rallied from a 17-point deficit in the Big 12 title game, when he threw for 342 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score while Lewis had an interception in the end zone and recovered two fumbles.
Jones also set Oklahoma bowl records with 429 yards and three touchdowns in the Fiesta Bowl.
While Stoops’ team is favored to win the conference and possibly contend for a national championship, Texas Tech’s Tommy Tuberville and Kansas’ Turner Gill both are trying to establish their teams as Big 12 contenders.
The Red Raiders were picked seventh and Kansas was at the bottom of the preseason media poll. Kansas State and Iowa State, the other teams at Tuesday’s sessions, are also picked in the bottom half of the league.
Texas Tech won eight games last season, including a bowl against Northwestern, but Tuberville has a new defensive coordinator after the Red Raiders gave up 456 yards and 31 points a game last season.
“It wasn’t a great year, but it was a year that I think we can look back on and say that was the start of something good,” Tuberville said. “Did make one change in our defense this past year, after going through a year and watching what we have to play against, the type of players, the type of coaches.”
New defensive coordinator Chad Glasgow spent the past 10 seasons as an assistant at TCU, where the Horned Frogs use a 4-2-5 defense that will now be Tech’s base defense.
Gill lost his Big 12 debut last season to FCS team North Dakota State, and the Jayhawks finished the year losing seven of its last eight games.
“Last year at this time, I didn’t really quite understand all the deep details about where we were at and what we need to do as far as a team,” said Gill, who got to Kansas after taking Buffalo to a bowl game. “I had just an open mind and an open hear about what to expect in my first year, particularly. … I’m excited about where we are today.”
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