No. 1 OU kicks off season against underrated North Texas

Thursday, August 28th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ Barry Switzer will be there. So will former Heisman Trophy winners Billy Sims and Steve Owens. The Boz may show up, too.

The Oklahoma Sooners have summoned all of the greats from their championship past for Saturday night's season opener against North Texas, bringing a decidedly ceremonial feel to a game that projects to be a huge mismatch.

``When they have these kind of party games, they want to have somebody they're sure they can hand it to,'' North Texas coach Darrell Dickey said without a hint of irritation in his voice. ``We're used to being everybody's homecoming.''

Although it's too early for homecoming _ these are the muggy summer days of August, after all _ the top-ranked Sooners are going heavy on the festivities for Saturday's matchup. In Norman, most expectations are that North Texas will be nothing but a bump on the road that leads to a national title.

That's partly why the Sooners will wear throwback uniforms from the Bud Wilkinson era in the 1950s and host a gaggle of former All-Americans in anticipation of the largest crowd to ever watch a sporting event in state history.

The only party-poopers seem to be the Sooners themselves, having spent much of the past few weeks watching reels of videotape of a plucky North Texas squad.

``Anyone who thinks this game is easy, you've got to be kidding,'' Oklahoma guard Davin Joseph said. ``If anyone thinks that North Texas isn't a good opponent for us, that's just not the case. It's not fair to North Texas.''

Never to be mistaken for a powerhouse program, North Texas has had its share of triumphs lately _ consecutive Sun Belt titles and New Orleans Bowl appearances, including a 24-19 stunner over Conference USA co-champ Cincinnati last season.

The Mean Green even placed 16 players on the all-Sun Belt first and second teams, including league Player of the Year Brandon Kennedy, a 5-foot-10, 315-pound bowling ball of a defensive tackle.

Still, North Texas understands the potential difficulty in even keeping Saturday night's game competitive against the defending Big 12 champs. The Mean Green enter the contest as 35-point underdogs.

``We feel like we've made some progress at the Division I level, but we're realistic _ we're not at OU's level,'' Dickey said. ``I've told my players, 'Either you're going to strap it on and get ready to play, or you're gonna be embarrassed.'''

The Sooners, meanwhile, are anxious to butt helmets with someone other than themselves and start earning their No. 1 ranking in the preseason poll.

``Through (two-a-days), in team meetings you find different ways to keep your players' attention,'' Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. ``We had a 10-minute, 15-minute video of our national championship run from (2000). It was amazing how many players were on the highlights of our national championship game that are still playing for us.

``Primarily, most of them are on defense. We'll see if those guys can come out and live up to all of the expectations.''

And there's plenty of expectations to go around in Norman.

A defense, ranked 10th in the nation last season, that's touted as being even better this year. An offense led by meticulous senior quarterback Jason White, who's started only four games after recovering from knee injuries in each of the past two seasons. The first preseason No. 1 ranking for the Sooners since Switzer's second-to-last team.

You could fill a Schooner with all of the testimonials about how great the Sooners are supposed to be this season.

``I'm sick and tired of talking without a game to talk about,'' Stoops said. ``It's odd _ it seems like we've already played half a season, as much media coverage as there's been for the last month.''

North Texas will get the first crack at trying to derail the Sooner's bid to become the fifth team in school history to open at No. 1 and finish that way. Judging from the scheduled salutes, Oklahoma doesn't figure there's much chance of that happening.

``If they're on top of their game,'' Dickey predicted, ``it's going to be a long evening.''