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Defensive-led Sooners aim for second straight Big 12 title

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Defensive tackle Tommie Harris might be the best defensive player in the nation. Or maybe it's linebacker Teddy Lehman. Cornerback Derrick Strait is another good candidate. So is safety Brandon Everage.

And they all play for the Oklahoma Sooners.

No wonder Oklahoma is the preseason No. 1.

``We're so deep,'' Lehman says, ``it's going to be awesome to watch.''

But as Oklahoma begins working on an eighth national championship, the strength of the Big 12 _ especially the Sooners' South division _ means they'll really have to earn it.

Texas, ranked fifth, remains a prime contender and No. 24 Oklahoma State, which has beaten Oklahoma the last two years, boasts one of the best quarterback-running back-receiver trios in the country.

Then there's Texas A&M, which beat the Sooners during a down year last season. The Aggies expect to get a lift from new coach Dennis Franchione.

So Oklahoma fans can't be certain they'll be in Kansas City on Dec. 6 for the Big 12 championship game.

But it's still a good idea to make reservations.

After all, the Sooners return 10 starters from a defense that allowed fewer than two touchdowns per game last season, including one or none six times.

The Nagurski Award committee is so impressed by Oklahoma's collection of talent that Harris, Lehman, Strait and Everage were among 36 players on the watch list for the defender of the year honor. No other school has more than two.

The intimidating part for opposing coaches is that they can't hide from any of them. Harris anchors the line. Lehman prowls the midfield while Strait locks down the best receiver and Everage roams the secondary.

The buzz all summer, though, has been about two other players: defensive end Jonathan Jackson and safety Donte Nicholson. Jackson will start, while Nicholson, who came on strong late last season, could displace incumbent Eric Bassey.

With so much going for the defense, the burden is eased on an offense that needs quarterback Jason White to finally stay healthy and Kejuan Jones to replace 1,800-yard rusher Quentin Griffin.

``If you do not score, then you know the defense will get the ball back,'' said White, a senior who has started only four games because of injuries to both knees. ``There is a little pressure, but the way our offense has been working out this offseason, I think we will be just fine.''

Team capsules, in predicted order of finish:

SOUTH

OKLAHOMA: At 5-foot-9, Jones is two inches taller than Griffin. Their styles are different, though, as Jones, who set a freshman record with 14 touchdowns last season, attacks defenders. ... White has a good attitude about his health. ``I feel like I'm just as capable as I used to be,'' he said. ``I guess I don't have any more knees to blow out.''

TEXAS: Chance Mock gets first crack at replacing QB Chris Simms, but redshirt freshman Vince Young is waiting. Their objective will be getting the ball to RB Cedric Benson and WR Roy Williams ... Coach Mack Brown hopes to avoid another QB controversy like Simms vs. Major Applewhite two years ago. ... UT has lost three straight to Oklahoma.

OKLAHOMA STATE: The Cowboys' combination of 3,000-yard passer Josh Fields, 1,000-yard runner Tatum Bell and 1,000-yard receiver Rashaun Woods is their best threesome since Barry Sanders was in the backfield.

TEXAS A&M: Franchione has gone from the 3-4 alignment of ``Wrecking Crew'' fame to a 4-3. He's also sprucing up the offense, although he hasn't decided who will run it: junior Dustin Long, coming off the second-best passing season in school history, or sophomore Reggie McNeal, who beat Oklahoma as a true freshman.

TEXAS TECH: QB B.J. Symons has thrown for 545 yards and seven TDs in three seasons. That's one big game for predecessor Kliff Kingsbury, who left with 39 school records and several NCAA marks. ... New defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich was coach at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo when he gave Tech coach Mike Leach his first collegiate coaching job.

BAYLOR: New coach Guy Morriss went from 2-9 his first season at Kentucky to 7-4 last season. Now he returns to his home state trying to revive a program that's won four conference games in seven Big 12 seasons. ... He started two-a-days with fewer than 80 players and the campus rocked by basketball turmoil.

NORTH

KANSAS STATE: QB Ell Roberson and RB Darren Sproles could post huge numbers this season considering the Wildcats might play 15 games. They have an extra regular-season game (Aug. 23 vs. California) and could play in the Big 12 championship, then a bowl. ... K-State avoids Oklahoma for a second straight year, but plays at Texas on Oct. 4.

MISSOURI: Brad Smith became the second player in Division I-A history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in one season, and he was only a freshman. His next trick is giving the Tigers their third winning season in the last 20. ... A victory over Illinois in the opener could send Mizzou to 5-0 for the first time since 1981.

COLORADO: It'll be a surprise if the Buffs become the first team to win a Big 12 division three straight years. They have no experience at QB and must replace 1,744-yard rusher Chris Brown. ... CU is 0-4 in openers under coach Gary Barnett. A good start against Colorado State is important considering UCLA, Washington State and Florida State follow.

NEBRASKA: The Huskers shook up their coaching staff after going 7-7, their worst since 1961. Coach Frank Solich is no longer offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator Craig Bohl was fired and six other assistants are gone. ... The new offense will have Jammal Lord throw more, while the defense will try avoiding second-half collapses.

IOWA STATE: QB Chris Love and RB Hiawatha Rutland, starters coming out of spring practice, won't play the opener after being charged with drunken driving this summer. They also can't practice with the first team before then. ... That means the Cyclones will go from run-pass whiz Seneca Wallace to juco transfer Waye Terry or redshirt freshman Austin Flynn.

KANSAS: Coach Mark Mangino heads into his second season seeking his first conference win. The Jayhawks could be in trouble if it doesn't come Oct. 18 at home against Baylor. ... A loss to Baylor last season started an ongoing seven-game losing skid.
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