Watching the national championship game couldn't have been easy for Oklahoma. It was one game away from getting there. In the 12 days since that 37-17 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals, there is time to reflect.

This past season differed from the overwhelming majority of head coach Bob Stoops' 17 seasons. It doesn't happen often, but OU had the benefit of diminished expectations in 2015.

Few, if any, predicted a run to a Big 12 Conference title or an 11-2 season.

"We got ourselves back in a position where we're winning a conference championship and competing for a national championship," Stoops said. "When you can do that, that's positive. They did a great job of getting it right."



What comes next is what the Sooners are used to -- high expectations.

The Sooners have to replace some notable players. Nine players were first-team selections to the all-Big 12 team. Only quarterback Baker Mayfield and running back Samaje Perine will be back.

There are some big holes on defense. Losing Charles Tapper, Eric Striker, Dominique Alexander and Zack Sanchez leaves big voids at every level.

However, a strong argument can be made that OU reached the College Football Playoff a year earlier than expected. Having Mayfield back virtually guarantees the Sooners will start the season as a top-five team. He was a Heisman Trophy-caliber player in his first season as a starter. His 36 touchdown passes against just seven interceptions was an incredible ratio for someone who hadn't started a game since 2013.

Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley adjusted on the fly when it came to utilizing running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.

Perine, who underwent successful ankle surgery on Monday, didn't become the offensive focal point until midway through the season. He still averaged 6.0 yards per carry and rushed for 1,349 yards.

That surgery will likely keep Perine out of spring practice. There's no concern there. Guys who have rushed for over 3,000 yards in two seasons don't have much to prove in the spring.

Replacing all-Big 12 center Ty Darlington and guard Nila Kasitati is a primary goal for the spring. There's no decision to make at center. Left guard Jonathan Alvarez moves to that spot.

Tackles Orlando Brown and Dru Samia both showed vast improvement starting as freshmen this season. For Samia, he's about to go through his first offseason in the weight program. It will make a difference. He only weighed about 280 pounds this season. Expect him to be over 300 when OU takes the field against Houston in the season opener.

The biggest offensive void the Sooners must fill is the one wide receiver Sterling Shepard leaves. Riley did a great job spreading the ball around. But a go-to receiver, which Shepard was, makes everything easier.

RELATED: How teams in final top 25 look for next season

Much of the groundwork was done in 2015. Remember, this was supposed to be a rebuilding season for OU's offense.

"We really believe as more and more players mature in the system, that we're going to have a great opportunity to be really effective offensively and defensively," Stoops said. "We're on our way and can continue to recruit to it."

Defensively is where there has to be another jump. The Sooners were a better defensive unit in 2015. It's been tried many times, but winning a national championship is impossible with an iffy defense.

Replacing players like Tapper, Striker, Alexander and Sanchez isn't easy. All have been starters the last three seasons.

Defensive end Charles Walker jumps into Tapper's spot. Walker had six sacks while splitting time with Matt Dimon at defensive end this season. His absence in the Orange Bowl due to a concussion was a major hit.

But one thing that has changed in the last few seasons is the depth in the Sooners' front seven. They've stockpiled defensive linemen the last two years and been able to redshirt many of them.


Defensive tackle Marquise Overton was the only front-seven player in the 2015 recruiting class who didn't redshirt. Neville Gallimore and Du'Vonta Lampkin will play in 2016. So will Austin Roberts and Kenneth Mann.

Expect Tay Evans to jump into Alexander's inside linebacker spot. Ricky DeBerry was a coveted recruit last February. He'll get the first chance to take over for Striker. Physically, both are more imposing than the players they're expected to replace.

The secondary matured this past season. One has to think Dakota Austin steps into Sanchez's cornerback spot. He handled it will when Sanchez missed two games due to an ankle injury.

What the Sooners hope doesn't change is the culture those players left behind. It was a turnaround season because the entire roster seemed to buy into the process. Teams that win championships make incremental improvement throughout the season. It's a path that has to be followed.

"I think everyone experienced that this year," Stoops said. "All those that were part of that are coming back. I would think it would be fairly easy to buy into that and push forward."

This article was written by John Shinn from The Norman Transcript, Okla. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.