NORMAN, Okla. -- After drifting out of national relevance during the past several seasons, Oklahoma's swagger is back.

An emerging defense returning nine starters and the growing confidence of sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight provides a strong foundation. Those elements propel the Sooners into the upcoming season with bold expectations, even for a program with seven national titles.

"We want nothing around here but the national championship," senior defensive end Geneo Grissom said. "And that's what we're striving for."

Brett Deering | Getty Images
Geneo Grissom made 40 tackles in 2013.
The Sooners' national profile has taken a hit in recent seasons. Since losing at Texas Tech in 2011, the Sooners have been ranked among the top five nationally in only four of the 40 most recent Associated Press polls before this preseason. And in none of them have coach Bob Stoops' team been ranked higher than third nationally.

During that tumble, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Baylor have taken turns emerging as the Big 12's dominant team.

But a late charge last season has restoked Stoops' "Sooner Magic." It has helped the Sooners enter the season as the heavy Big 12 favorite and the conference's fashionable pick to qualify for the first four-team College Football Playoff.

Knight overcame an uneven start last season to morph into a cool, polished leader during the course of his freshman season. His MVP effort in the Sooners' upset victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl showed him as a leader with the kind of self-assurance and moxie that he lacked earlier in his debut season.

"The biggest difference is his confidence. He really leads the team," sophomore linebacker Dom Alexander said. "Last year, he didn't know he was going to be the starter and was just competing for the job.

"But now, he knows it's his job and he's got confidence. He runs the offense and everybody follows him."

The biggest difference is his [Knights] confidence. He really leads the team...he runs the offense and everybody follows him.
-- Dom Alexander
Early in 2013, Knight lost his job twice because of injuries and inconsistent play. But his 348-yard, four-touchdown passing effort against the Crimson Tide showcased what he can do.

"It was fun to play like that and fun to get a big win, but now that's the baseline for me," Knight said. "That's the foundation. I expect that every game and want to build on it."

His late surge has emboldened him to push OU for the playoffs after the recent backslide.

"It's where we want to be," Knight said. "You look at the walls and it's all around this place. That's what's happened before and where we want to be again this year."

The same could be said for OU's defense. After struggling in an embarrassing blowout loss at Baylor on Nov. 7, the Sooners bounced back.

The Sooners were gashed for 516 yards by Alabama. But they came up with seven sacks and five turnovers in a big-play effort against a Crimson Tide offense than had allowed only 10 sacks entering the game.

The victory enabled Stoops to silence his critics with perhaps his biggest triumph since the 2000 national championship game.

It was a punctuation mark on a season in which the Sooners led the Big 12 in total defense for the first time since 2006.

Now, with nine starters returning, the group no longer struggles with the growing pains that marked its transition to a 3-4 defense early last season.

"There's really no comparison," Stoops said. "Now our guys have got a full year and they understand each play we play against and how we want to play against that particular play. All that is a big deal compared to a year ago, when we were just figuring it out."

OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said the Sooners could be one of his best defenses. But he's worried about uneven practices as he prepares for the Aug. 30 opener against Louisiana Tech.

"It's early, but we haven't been as good as we can be," Mike Stoops said. "We have to knock some rust off and get back and get that same hunger and desire we had a year ago."

And with all the early notoriety, it makes the defensive coordinator wonder if the Sooners can recapture that late-season magic.

"My biggest fear as a defensive coordinator is you can become complacent," Stoops said. "There's no place for that in football. And if you do that, you're going to get slapped and it will happen quickly. We need to make sure we aren't taking anything for granted this year with so many positives."

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