GAME NOTES: The ULM Warhawks face the unenviable task of opening the 2013 season on the road against the 16th-ranked team in the nation, the Oklahoma Sooners.
ULM is facing a ranked opponent to kick off a campaign for the sixth straight year, and while the Warhawks are typically overmatched by the better teams in the country, they are perfectly suited for competition in the Sun Belt Conference. ULM pulled off an upset of No. 8 Arkansas last season, marking the first time a Sun Belt squad had beaten a top-10 team.
Todd Berry is set to embark on his fourth year at the helm, and last season he led the Warhawks to eight wins -- the most the program has amassed since joining the FBS ranks. With a 6-2 league ledger, ULM finished second in the Sun Belt and earned its first bowl bid as a member of the FBS when it dropped a 45-14 decision to Ohio University in the 2012 Independence Bowl.
Each year, expectations surrounding the Oklahoma football program rival that of all the top teams in the country. However, Bob Stoops' troops haven't quite lived up to the hype in recent years, and last season the Sooners suffered a loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 Conference opener, and dropped a 30-13 decision to Notre Dame, both at home, thus pushing them just outside BCS consideration to a date with former league rival Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. The Sooners were rolled in that game (41-13), giving them a whole lot of time to ponder the possibilities as they turned an eye to the future.
Stoops enters his 15th season in charge of the OU football program and has logged an impressive 149-37 record, won eight Big 12 titles, made four BCS National Championship Game appearances, winning it all in 2000.
This bout marks the first meeting between ULM and Oklahoma on the football field.
Quarterback Kolton Browning enters his senior season as ULM's leader is touchdown passes with 60, and he is tied with Steven Jyles (2002-05) with 76 total career touchdowns. Additionally, Browning ranks second in passing yards, passing attempts, pass completions, total yards of offense and plays. Clearly, he is the catalyst for the Warhawks offense, and others will need to step up in an effort to alleviate the pressure he feels after also serving as the team's leading ground gainer last season (488 yards, seven TDs).
ULM averaged just shy of 34 ppg last season, and the loss of leading receiver Brent Leonard (104 receptions, 1,118 yards, 10 TDs) means a guy like senior Je'Ron Hamm (62 rec., 915 yards, six TDs) will be expected to be even more productive.
While the offense certainly did its part last season, the ULM defense had its issues, particularly when it came to defending the pass (276.5 ypg, 29 TDs). As a result, foes put up nearly 30 ppg with five of them scoring more than 40 points.
The defense lost its top overall performer from last year (R.J. Young), but the return of safeties Cordero Smith (71 tackles) and Isaiah Newsome (four interceptions), and linebacker Ray Stovall (13.5 TFL) should provide for some continuity.
Despite losses to key personnel on offense, there is once again reason to be optimistic in Norman as Stoops has stockpiled an overabundance of talent.
Despite averaging nearly 39 ppg last season, the Sooners ranked in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 in scoring, doing so behind an aerial attack that generated 336.5 ypg to rank third in the conference and fifth nationally. Quarterback Landry Jones was the guy Stoops relied on to keep the offense moving, but he is no longer around, and it was thought that Blake Bell was going to be the heir apparent. A formidable presence in the running game with 24 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons, Bell is clearly a skilled football player, but he has been beaten out for the starting job, at least for this game, by freshman Trevor Knight.
Despite naming Knight the starter, Stoops praised the work ethic of both players.
"Both Trevor and Blake (Bell) have competed hard and both will be ready to play against Louisiana-Monroe," Stoops said. "Like every other position on our team, I expect them both to continue competing for the starting job."
Rest assured, Bell will still get his share of touches as part of a rushing attack that also includes Damien Williams, Brennan Clay and Trey Millard, that trio combining for nearly 1,700 yards and 17 TDs as juniors last year. Oklahoma is equally fortunate to have all five starters back along the offensive line, anchored by All-Big 12 First Teamer Gabe Ikard at center.
The receiving corps took a hit with the loss of Kenny Stills (82 receptions, 959 yards, 11 TDs) and Justin Brown (73 receptions, 879 yards, five TDs), but Jalen Saunders (62 receptions, 829 yards, three TDs) heads a list of six guys who logged double-digit catches in 2012.
The Oklahoma defense experienced its share of ups and downs last year, the unit doing a solid job against the pass (206.1 ypg, second in the Big 12, 29th nationally), but struggling against the run (192.2 ypg, ninth in the conference, 89th nationally). The loss of seven starters means there are likely to be some growing pains this year. The marquee name on the OU defense is senior corner Aaron Colvin, who finished third on the team last season with 61 total tackles, to go along with four interceptions and a club-best 11 PBU.
The Sooners lost a couple of starters for this contest after it was announced earlier this week that both defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue and cornerback Cortez Johnson have been suspended for their involvement in separate off-the- field issues.
Using last year's upset of Arkansas as motivation, expect the Warhawks to put up a valiant fight, but in the end for the deeper, more talented Sooners to kick off the season on a positive note.