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STOOPS prepares to lead Oklahoma to top again

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DALLAS (AP) _ Heisman Trophy finalist Josh Heupel and Orange Bowl MVP Torrance Marshall may be gone, but what remains for the defending national champion Oklahoma Sooners is the unshakable confidence of coach Bob Stoops.

Stoops and the Sooners aren't shying away from the amplified expectations that come from winning their seventh national championship last season.

And despite the absence of record-setting quarterback Heupel, All-Big 12 linebacker Marshall and seven other starters from Oklahoma's surprising run to the national title, the Sooners want people to know they're not complacent with their success.

``I believe we have a stronger, faster and undoubtedly, more experienced group of players,'' said Stoops, now entering his third season as Oklahoma's coach. ``The important thing going into this season is the fact that the players know how to win.''

In the media's preseason poll released Thursday, Oklahoma was picked to repeat as the conference's South Division champion.

Now the conference favorite, the Sooners know they won't enter many games as underdogs anymore.

``We've been experienced, and we've played in big games and we know what it's all about,'' said Oklahoma receiver Josh Norman, ``and I think that after the first four games last year, we didn't sneak up on anybody.''

The Sooners won their first four games by an average of 31 points, then blitzed their way through the conference's top teams. They handed archrival Texas a frenzied 63-14 pasting, knocked off then top-ranked Nebraska by 17 points and held off Kansas State twice, including the conference's championship game.

They entered the Orange Bowl as 10 1/2-point underdogs, but closed out their season with a dominating 13-2 win over Florida State to clinch the school's first national title in 15 years.

And Stoops said either of Heupel's potential replacements, junior Nate Hybl or sophomore Jason White, could put up just as many dazzling offensive numbers.

``Two years ago, no one was bragging about Josh Heupel,'' Stoops said. ``With what we've seen in the practices and scrimmages, we're confident either one of them can do the job.''

Even with Oklahoma returning 14 starters, including 23 freshmen and sophomores from the team's two-deep depth chart at the Orange Bowl, the consensus at Thursday's media event was that Oklahoma could have a short-lived stint as conference champs.

``There's a lot that goes into a season like that _ you've got to be a little fortunate,'' said Nebraska coach Frank Solich. ``Any one of five or six teams in the conference could have that kind of year.''

Coaches and selected players from Oklahoma, Kansas State, Baylor, Missouri, Oklahoma State and Nebraska all lauded the toughness of the conference, which could have as many as three teams ranked among the nation's top 10 teams.

``Tell me that there's a better conference in the country,'' said first-year Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who was hired away from Toledo. ``Show me a better conference.''

In the media poll, Nebraska was picked as the first-place team in the North Division, followed by Kansas State, Colorado, Iowa State, Missouri and Kansas.

In the South, Oklahoma was followed by Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Baylor.

``I think we have the finest football conference in America from top to bottom,'' first-year Oklahoma State coach Les Miles said. ``That's where the best teams play.''
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