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Motivated Oklahoma Sooners are determined to win the right way

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Oklahoma is No. 4 on The Times' preseason college football countdown
The Sooners are coming off a momentum-building victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl
Oklahoma returns quarterback Trevor Knight, who shredded Alabama for 348 passing yards

Acknowledging that college football's new four-team playoff could someday inch toward a larger basketball-style tournament, we continue our Super 16 countdown, with No. 4, Oklahoma:

No one was talking championship after Oklahoma fell to 7-2 last year after a wipeout loss at Baylor.

That defeat came after Oklahoma lost to a Texas team that had no NFL-drafted players for the first time since 1937.

The separation anxiety between "Big Game" Bob Stoops and Oklahoma's 2000 national title was starting to look like a movie scene from "Gravity."

Then the switch flipped.

Oklahoma handled Iowa State and Kansas State and then stun-gunned Oklahoma State in Stillwater. That was followed by a respect-demanding victory against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

That started a spitball fight over how much Alabama even cared after a loss to Auburn denied the Crimson Tide a shot at three straight national titles.

Alabama used the same consolation-game excuse in 2008 when it lost to Utah in the Sugar Bowl after losing the Southeastern Conference title game to Florida.

For Oklahoma, the Alabama win provided much-needed fuel for a big-time program with its gas tank near empty.

"Like all experiences, you build off them," Stoops said this summer. "I think that really did give us a boost in the last week or two of recruiting."

Oklahoma used the momentum to get bigger, faster and stronger. There is now a bounce in the Sooners' step not seen since the last days of quarterback Sam Bradford.

Optimism is easy when you return quarterback Trevor Knight, who shredded Alabama for 348 passing yards. Knight had come light-years from going 11 for 28 in his debut against Louisiana Monroe.

Knight was shaky much of the year and shared the job with Blake Bell, the hulking presence known as "Bell-dozer."

The Sooners are so convinced Knight has turned the competence corner that Bell has been moved to tight end.

"It looks like he's played it his whole life," Stoops said of Bell's position switch.

Oklahoma returns nine starters on defense and plays Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State in Norman, Okla. A Sept. 13 home win over Tennessee would give Stoops a two-game winning streak over SEC teams that won national titles in the Bowl Championship Series era.

The Sooners also have a game-saver in kicker Michael Hunnicutt, who has made 62 of 72 career field-goal attempts.

You know Oklahoma can taste a title because it is delicately weighing acceptable player behavior as it relates to wins and losses.

The school was denied an NCAA eligibility waiver for star receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who was kicked off Missouri's roster because of off-field problems. The waiver would have made Green-Beckham eligible immediately, but he will have to sit out a season.

"We felt the opportunity to give him a second chance at our place could serve him well," Stoops said.

A second chance for highly touted freshman tailback Joe Mixon will have to wait. The school this week suspended Mixon for the season. He faces misdemeanor assault charges for allegedly punching a woman.

"We are committed to winning the right way," Stoops and Joe Castiglione, the school's athletic director, said in a joint statement.

Winning, whatever way, begins with the Aug. 30 home opener against Louisiana Tech.

The countdown so far: 16. Notre Dame, 15. Mississippi, 14. Stanford, 13. Louisiana State, 12. Michigan State, 11. USC, 10. Baylor, 9. Georgia, 8. South Carolina, 7. Ohio State, 6. Auburn, 5. UCLA.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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