NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — After the shocker that turned college football on its head at the start of last season, it goes without saying that No. 4 Oklahoma has an extra reason to be wary when a Championship Subdivision opponent rolls into town to open the season.
While Chattanooga doesn’t have the same lofty tradition as Appalachian State took into its historic upset of fifth-ranked Michigan, that hasn’t stopped the subject from being brought up around the Barry Switzer Center this week.
“The coaches have said it but they didn’t even need to say it. That’s the first thing we thought about as soon as we knew who we were playing and knew about how drastic if we lost, how that could affect our season,” defensive tackle Cory Bennett said.
There are a few similarities between Chattanooga and Appalachian State — mainly that both play in the Southern Conference — but not enough to get the Sooners too scared.
Appalachian State has won three straight national titles at college football’s second-highest level, and the closest link between Chattanooga and the championship game is being the host city for the first two of those contests.
The Mocs are coming off a 2-9 season, which included a 37-17 loss to Appalachian State, and have had only one winning season in the past decade. Their top running back, Bryan Fitzgerald, and starting center Brian Heflin were injured in the preseason, leaving short-handed a squad that already figured to be outmanned.
The Sooners aren’t chalking up their first win just yet, though.
“It’s a game. You’ve got to be pumped up for every game or just like last year, it’ll be one of the biggest upsets like in the Michigan-Appalachian State game. You can’t overlook anybody,” said Keenan Clayton, who’s shifting from the secondary to outside linebacker this season.
“It’s a game, it’s the first game, the first home game, it’s the season opener. No matter who it is, what more can you say? You’ve got to be hyped up that we’re playing ball again.”
Clayton will be a part of one of the most scrutinized areas for the Sooners, who lost playmaker Curtis Lofton and Lewis Baker from their linebacking corps. Only Ryan Reynolds, who has two surgically repaired knees, brings experience to the unit and junior college transfer Mike Balogun will be filling in after Austin Box also had knee surgery.
The secondary has also been shuffled after Reggie Smith joined Lofton in leaving for the NFL draft after their junior seasons.
For Chattanooga, Oklahoma represents the team’s highest-ranked opponent since a 1951 loss to third-ranked Tennessee. The school’s marquee win came in 1993, when Terrell Owens caught four touchdown passes in an upset against Marshall, which was then the top-ranked team in Division I-AA.
Last season, the Mocs were within 24-15 in the fourth quarter at Arkansas, and coach Rodney Allison hopes his team once again can make it interesting at least into the second half.
“You never know. It might be that one time out of 50, or whatever the odds are, that you beat a team like that,” Allison said. “We understand the caliber of team we’re obviously playing too, and we just want to go out and play as well as we can and stay injury-free for the most part and get ready for the next week.”
The Sooners are doing their best not to look ahead to the following week, when Cincinnati is due to visit Norman. The key this week, receiver Manuel Johnson said, is playing “Oklahoma football” to the best of their ability.
“It’s all about us. If we do what we need to do against anybody, then we’ll play good. And if we don’t do what we need to do, then no matter who it is, we can be beat,” Johnson said.
The last thing Oklahoma wants is to end up on the short end of an upset that may never be forgotten and have their national title hopes dashed too. And there’s also the matter of another disappointing Fiesta Bowl showing that has the Sooners hungry to get back on the field, regardless of the opponent.
“It’s never hard to get motivated for any game. You take things for granted and something can happen and you get upset. That’s definitely what we don’t want to happen,” Bennett said. “We don’t want to go out there and look bad our first game of the season. It’s easy to get motivated when you know what you’re working for.”