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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 3 Oklahoma seemingly has it all to make another run

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

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No. 3 Oklahoma

Bring on more crimson-and-cream domination. Oklahoma has perhaps the nation’s best quarterback in Spencer Rattler, a stud running back in Kennedy Brooks and eight defensive starters coming back. And they’re hungry, too. The Sooners won the Big 12 last season but didn’t make the playoffs, thanks to back-to-back losses early in the season to Iowa State and Kansas State. Coach Lincoln Riley has made three playoff appearances in four seasons. No big surprises here: getting past Texas, Iowa State and pesky Kansas State will be the keys to another good season in Norman.

Oklahoma was No. 5 in our preseason poll last year. The Sooners finished No. 6 in all three major polls.

About the Sooners

2020: 9-2, 6-2 in the Big 12 — second place, the first time they hadn't finished in first or tied for first since 2014. They fell to Iowa State 37-30 in Ames in early October, but prevailed 27-21 over the Cyclones in Arlington in the conference championship game. OU dismantled Florida 55-20 in the Cotton Bowl.

Coach: Lincoln Riley, 45-8, all in four seasons at Oklahoma. The 2015 Broyles Award winner and 2018 Big 12 coach of the year is 0-3 in College Football Playoff matchups.

Returning starters: 15 (7 offense, 8 defense)

Shoes to fill: Five Sooners were drafted, including a pair of cornerbacks — C Creed Humphrey (Chiefs, 2nd round); DE Ronnie Perkins (Patriots, 3rd); RB Rhamondre Stevenson (Patriots, 4th); CB Tre Brown (Seahawks, 4th); CB Tre Norwood (Steelers, 7th); QB Tanner Mordecai (transfer, SMU)

Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler threw for more than 3,000 yards last season and could be the top quarterback in the country this year. He's expected to be a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Catching up

Brooks was one of the few Sooners who opted out last season because of COVID-19 concerns. He then thought about going pro. But he's back on campus and the clear No. 1 threat in the backfield. The junior averaged 7.5 yards per carry his first two seasons and tallied 2,067 yards in the process. OU doesn’t have many established backfield candidates at the moment, other than Tennessee transfer Eric Gray. ... Raising Cane’s certainly expects Rattler to have a great season. The chicken restaurant wasted no time dipping its fingers in the name, image and likeness pool by signing him to an endorsement. It’s a bet almost as solid as its sauce. Rattler threw for 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns last season against only seven interceptions. Rattler completed 67.5% of his throws. Those are Heisman-caliber numbers going into 2021. ... Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch solidified that group when he arrived in 2019, and it has steadily improved. Grinch initially wanted smaller, more active defensive linemen, which led to more turnovers. Isaiah Thomas and Perrion Winfrey will hold down the front with linebacker Nik Bonitto roaming free to make plays. The Sooners were third in scoring defense last season (21.7).

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Returning leaders

Passing: Spencer Rattler 214-317-3,031, 28/7 (led team)

Rushing: Marcus Major 35-187-3 (4th)

Receiving: Marvin Mims 37-610-9 (led team), Theo Wease 37-530-4 (2nd), TE Austin Stogner 26-422-3 (3rd)

Tackles: LB Brian Asamoah 66 (led team), S Delarrin Turner-Yell 52 (2nd), S Pat Fields 45 (T-3rd), CB Woodi Washington 45 (T-3rd)

Sacks: DL Isaiah Thomas 8½ (led team), OLB Nik Bonitto 8 (2nd)

Interceptions: CB Woodi Washington 2 (3rd)

Returning all-conference

Offense: FB Jeremiah Hall (1st team), WR Marvin Mims (2nd), OL Marquis Hayes (hon. mention), QB Spencer Rattler (hon. mention), TE Austin Stogner (hon. mention), WR Theo Wease (hon. mention)

Defense: DL Isaiah Thomas (2nd), DL Perrion Winfrey (2nd), LB Brian Asamoah (hon. mention), OLB Nik Bonitto (hon. mention), CB D.J. Graham (hon. menton), S Delarrin Turner-Yell (hon. mention), CB Woodi Washington (hon. mention), LB Dashaun White (hon. mention)

Special teams: K Gabe Brkic (1st)

Oklahoma running back Kennedy Brooks opted out of the 2000 season because of the pandemic but has rushed for more than 2,000 yards in his Sooners career.

FYI

How the pandemic affected Oklahoma: Initially, Riley sent players home for a break on Aug. 8 "after it became evident" the season opener wasn’t going to be played as scheduled. When the Sooners returned, nine players tested positive. Riley said one position group was down to one healthy player. OU started the year 1-2 but then rattled off eight straight wins, including beating Florida in the Cotton Bowl.

Not ready for prime time: One of the biggest offseason stories in Norman had nothing to do with the on-field product. It was in the TV booth. Fox announced that this year’s Oklahoma-Nebraska game — to honor the 50th anniversary of the "Game of the Century" — would start at 11 a.m. OU athletic director Joe Castiglione issued a statement saying the school was "bitterly disappointed" with the decision. Both teams were hoping for a prime-time kickoff.

Eyes on the secondary: Safties Dellarin Turner-Yell and Pat Fields have come a long way and seen a lot of Big 12 action. But they also have just two interceptions combined in the past three seasons. Those two must lead a secondary that lost several athletes to the NFL draft. Jaden Davis, D.J. Graham and Woodi Washington all need to elevate their play to help the pass defense.

The next domino:Texas, Oklahoma formally ask to join the Southeastern Conference in 2025

2020 national stat rankings

Where Oklahoma ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Sooners ranked in 2019.

Scoring: 6th (2019 — 6th)

Scoring defense: 29th (64th, +35 spots)

Total offense: 11th (3rd, -8)

Total defense: 29th (38th, +9)

Passing: 14th (18th, +4)

Pass defense: 83rd (58th, -25)

Rushing: 49th (14th, -35)

Rush defense: 9th (32nd, +23)

Sacks: 3rd (34th, +31)

Interceptions: 3rd (100th, +97)

Red zone offense: 13th (13th)

Red zone defense: 41st (128th, +87)

Turnover margin: 35th (109, +74)

Time of possession: 20th (39th, +19)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum going

No. 21 Oklahoma State: Cowboys have offensive questions, for a change

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes hope this is the year to bump the Buckeyes

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Upstart Chanticleers look here to stay, ready or not

No. 18 Texas: Longhorns are starting over at coach, quarterback, offense, defense

No. 17 Wisconsin: Badgers eager for a bounce-back season in Big Ten

No. 16 Miami: Hurricanes banking on D'Eric King's return from injury

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks out to make it three straight Pac-12 title game wins

No. 14 LSU: Last year's hard knocks may pay off for this year's Tigers

No. 13 Indiana: Hoosiers have restocked their shelves with transfer talent

No. 12 USC: Trojans are trending in the right direction in Pac-12

No. 11 Florida: Minus the big names, Gators starting over on offense

No. 10 North Carolina: Tar Heels work transfer portal to keep things going

No. 9 Notre Dame: Irish should lean on Williams and the running game

No. 8 Cincinnati: Bearcats have risen to the Group of Five mountaintop

No. 7 Iowa State: Returning star power has Cyclones looking strong again

No. 6 Texas A&M: Aggies are set to make another run at a CFP berth

No. 5 Georgia: Bulldogs have reloaded after their NFL exodus

No. 4 Ohio State: Buckeyes part with NFL talent, but simply reload

No. 3 Oklahoma

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 2 team. Want a hint?

This school (a) has made six College Football Playoff fields, (b) is having to replace a quarterback drafted in the first round, (c) plays its games on natural grass and (d) is led by a coach who's been at the school since 2003.