Obviously, Sam Bradford's status has monopolized all the talk leading up to Saturday's showdown between OU and Miami. I don't think it makes as much of a difference as the college football punditry would have you believe.
Here's what to watch on Saturday night when the Sooners and Hurricanes square off at LandShark Stadium:
1. Who's playing quarterback for OU
OU coach Bob Stoops has continued to play coy with the media all week about Bradford's availability. Stoops has even hinted that a decision on who starts at quarterback between Bradford and redshirt freshman Landry Jones may not be made until game time. (Yeah, right.)
Frankly, I don't think it's that big of a deal. Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson's play-calling may vary slightly, trending a bit more aggressive with Bradford at the helm. Still, the Sooners' general plan of attack won't change much. Which takes us to...
2. Oklahoma's yards per rush in the first quarter
The Sooners' run game looks like their trump card in this matchup. Running backs Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray both ran for more than 1,000 yards last season, and the rushing attack has remained potent in 2009, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. In particular, Murray appears to be back to his old explosive self after coming off a knee injury in 2007 and spending all last year struggling to get back in top form.
Meanwhile, Miami has had problems stopping the run in its first three games, giving up 3.85 yards per attempt, 66th in the country. Last week, Virginia Tech averaged a shade under five yards per carry on a staggering 55 attempts. The Hokies threw just nine passes en route to a 31-7 win.
Expect the Sooners to come out trying to pound the rock, giving them a good look at how the 'Canes intend to stop them. If they can run effectively early on, OU likely will continue to work the ground game and use the pass opportunistically when Miami stacks the line of scrimmage.
3. Miami's production on first down
In the Hurricanes' first two games against Florida State and Georgia Tech, offensive coordinator Mark Whipple's diverse play-calling on first down clearly put the opposing defenses on their heels. Whipple's healthy mix of runs and passes yielded 8.4 yards per first-down play, buoyed by an average of 14.1 yards per pass.
That all changed against Virginia Tech, though. In the first half, the Hokies stymied Harris and the rest of the Miami offense on first down, giving up just six total yards and holding Harris without a pass completion on five attempts. Whether by chance or the design Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster, the Canes' inability to get it going on first down consistently left them with long yardage on second and third down. Tech rolled to a 21-0 lead and never looked back.
If the Sooners can replicate the Hokies' success defending Miami on first down, OU should win comfortably.
4. Special teams play
Through the first three games of the season, the Sooners' kickoff coverage has shown marked improvement following a disastrous 2008. However, OU has yet to face a foe with the kind of weapons in the return game that The U boasts. The 'Canes are averaging 26.6 yards per kickoff returns. Junior Graig Cooper has been particularly on kick returns, going for an average of 31.2 yards.
Cheap points from special teams could swing this one.
5. Who splits out in OU's three-receiver sets
Through three games, Ryan Broyles and Brandon Caleb have established themselves as the Sooners' top two at the wide receiver spot. When it comes to a third option, though, OU receivers coach Jay Norvell has yet to identify anyone from a revolving door of candidates. Compounding the problem has been the inconsistency of the Sooners' tight ends.
Caleb's emergence has taken some heat off of Broyles. Without a wealth of reliable options at receiver, however, OU will have trouble converting on obvious passing downs.
6. Miami's ability to rush the passer
The OU offensive line failed to protect Bradford against the blitz in the opener against BYU, and it cost the reigning Heisman winner and his team dearly. Assuming Bradford plays on Saturday, the 'Canes will be gunning for him. If the o-line allows the Miami pass rush to rough Bradford up, that's trouble.
Likewise, the tried-and-true formula for rattling a young quarterback on the road is to bring the heat. If it's Jones calling the signals for OU, expect the 'Canes to blitz him relentlessly. Jones has played with plenty of poise in his two starts in Bradford's absence, but Idaho State and Tulsa are entirely different animals from Miami's ultra-athletic defenders.
Either way, if Miami can get to the quarterback consistently, it could be a long night in South Florida for the Sooners.