If you're expecting Louisiana-Monroe to come into Norman on Saturday night just to collect a paycheck and get out then you're going to be in for quite a surprise. The Warhawks have all the tools needed to turn this game into a TCU of 2005 or BYU of 2009 type atmosphere. They return more starters than any other team FBS and are riding last year's success as a springboard into high expectations for 2013. I'm not flat out calling for the upset, but what I am saying is that the Sooners had been ready to play.
Picked to win the Sun Belt Conference, ULM's offense averaged 35.5 points per game in 2012. Quarterback Kolton Browning completed 63.8% of his passes for 3,049 yards and 29 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. A dual-threat guy, he also averaged 40.7 rushing yards per game and let the team with 488 yards. He will be a strong test for Oklahoma's defensive line who will be charged with the task of containing Browning while also getting pressure on him. The Sun Belt is a ways off from the level of football played in the Big Twelve but Browning, who was selected as the conference's preseason offensive MVP, is the key to any hopes that ULM has of pulling an upset.
Road upsets are nothing new to ULM
However, Browning won't be the only quarterback to take the field for ULM on Saturday night. Knowing that he shares snaps with Cody Wells just makes his accomplishments all the more impressive. Warhawks head coach Todd Berry will bring Wells in for a change of pace and to get the defense to do different things in response.
"It [two quarterbacks] makes things a whole lot more difficult for us. Coach Kish gave us an article about them and they were talking about the dual quarterback system that they have and the option quarterback that they have. It makes it hard, especially on any type of defense that goes against option quarterbacks like that." - Linebacker Corey Nelson
Helping things along with the offense, ULM returns four starters from last year's offensive line. A key fact for the Warhawks is that not a single player missed a game in 2012 along Louisiana-Monroe's offensive line. This is a group that comes to Norman having already attained success and are seasoned veterans. You'd like to think that Oklahoma's talent supersedes ULM up front but there a lot of question marks to the OU defensive front and a lot of proven success for the Warhawks.
Oklahoma's biggest question mark is also their biggest key to success on Saturday night. ULM comes to Norman with a proven offense while the Sooners look to counter with experienced running backs, talented receivers, experienced offensive linemen and an unproven quarterback. Trevor Knight will be in the spotlight for several reasons on Saturday night, but none more important than the link between his on field success and Oklahoma's opportunity to win the game.
ULM gave up 27.8 points per game last year and an average of 272.4 yard through the air (Second most in the Sun Belt) and in their lone game against Big 12 competition, Baylor passed for 380 yards and four scores through the air. With a loaded group of receivers and an experienced offensive line protecting him (Sooners have four of five starters back), Knight's debut could be really special, and that's exactly what Oklahoma needs it to be.
Looking back at the only two season opening losses in Bob Stoops tenure, the play of the quarterback is the common denominator. Paul Thompson struggled to move the ball against TCU in 2005, and Rhett Bomar wasn't much better at it. Sam Bradford was injured just before the half of the BYU game in 2009 and Landry Jones played the remainder of the game looking like a deer in the headlights. Both quarterbacks went on to be Big Twelve champions before their careers were over but in those two games they were a key part of Oklahoma's struggles.
ULM has experience and talent like TCU in `05 and BYU in `09, and Oklahoma's quarterback play will be just as crucial Saturday night as it was back then.