Tough defense makes Oklahoma No. 1 in AP preseason poll

Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2003

It's not hard to figure out why Oklahoma is the preseason No. 1 team in The Associated Press college football poll.

All-American defensive tackle Tommie Harris leads a dominating defense that features four of the 36 players on the preseason watch list for top defensive player in the nation.

The key for the Sooners will be getting enough offense to support all those hard hitters.

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

The Sooners open the college football season atop The Associated Press poll for a record ninth time, beating out defending national champion Ohio State for the No. 1 ranking in voting released Saturday.

''I appreciate the fact that people view us that way,'' Sooners coach Bob Stoops said. ''I don't want to undervalue that. We appreciate that people view us as one of those teams that can win it all. But in the end, they don't hand out any trophies in August.''

Oklahoma got 32 first-place votes and 1,573 points to Ohio State's 27 firsts and 1,532 points from the 65 sports writers and broadcasters on the AP panel.

It's the widest margin in the preseason Top 25 since 1999, when Florida State had 77 more points than Tennessee.

''We really don't take pride in something we haven't earned,'' White said. ''It's a fresh start for us and everyone else in the country. We've lost some people and so have some other teams. We're starting over.

"Preseason rankings don't mean anything. You've got to play the games.''

Rounding out the Top 10 are Miami (two first-place votes), Michigan (two), Texas, Auburn (one), Kansas State (one), Southern California, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh.

Oklahoma was playing about as well as anyone when last season ended, easily beating Colorado in the Big 12 championship game and Washington State in the Rose Bowl to finish 12-2.

The Sooners hope to build off those wins with a balanced offense and dominating defense. Nine starters return to a defense that ranked 10th in the nation in yards, fifth in points.

''We can be the best defense that OU has ever had,'' defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek said. ''Maybe the best that college football has ever seen.''

Harris is joined on the defense by three other finalists for the Nagurski Award: linebacker Teddy Lehman, cornerback Derrick Strait and safety Brandon Everage.

Oklahoma, which won its seventh AP title in 2000, also was the No. 1 preseason pick in the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll, released July 31. The coaches had the same top three teams as the AP.

The Sooners are the preseason No. 1 for the first time since 1987. They have won the title four times after opening the season atop the AP poll.

''We know people are going to be gunning for us,'' White said. ''At least this way you know you're going to get everyone's best shot. That will make us better in the long run.''

While nine of the previous 53 preseason No. 1s won the championship, Florida State is the only school to go wire-to-wire, doing it in 1999.

Ohio State and Nebraska are tied for second with six preseason No. 1s.

The Cornhuskers are one of the notable omissions this year after being ranked in the preseason the last 33 years. Florida State has the longest current string at 21 seasons.

''A lot of guys have a chip on their shoulder,'' Cornhuskers fullback Judd Davies said. ''We went from being the bully to getting bullied. When you win so much, it's hard not to win.''

For the sixth time in the past seven years, the defending champion did not start the next season at the top of the poll.

Ohio State figures to be a formidable contender, however. It returns all 11 starters on offense from a team that went 14-0 and should be strong at defensive line and cornerback.

''I know we're going back to the national championship because we've got a lot of good athletes coming back,'' two-way star Chris Gamble said.

The big question for Ohio State surrounds star running back Maurice Clarett, who is being held out of practice because of investigations into his eligibility by the NCAA and the university.

Leading off the second 10 is Georgia, followed by Tennessee, Florida State, LSU, Maryland, North Carolina State, Washington, Virginia, Purdue and Notre Dame.

Wisconsin, Arizona State, Colorado State, Oklahoma State (last ranked in the preseason in 1985) and TCU round out the poll.

The first regular-season AP poll will be released Sept. 1.

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