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Oklahoma Sooners - Stanford Cardinal: What to Watch in the Sun Bowl

Sun Bowl

Date: Dec. 31
Time: 2 p.m. EST
Venue: Sun Bowl (El Paso, Texas)
Vegas Line: OU -10

For a program accustomed to title shots and BCS bowls, a New Year's Eve bowl game seems almost pointless. In fact, given how Oklahoma has been sleepwalking through recent postseasons, it's easy to wonder if "pointless" is actually an overestimation of their attitude towards the 2009 Brut Sun Bowl.

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but this time is different.

Sadly, the 2009 season turned into a 2010 audition for a large number of Sooners as soon as quarterback Sam Bradford went down in the first game of the year against BYU. In that sense, this game represents something of a final exam for all the OU youngsters pressed into action this season. A win over a quality opponent like Stanford could provide a nice springboard into next year.

On the other hand, fourth-year players like Gerald McCoy and Trent Williams are facing the prospect of finishing their careers with an 0-4 bowl record. The Sun Bowl may not have the cachét of a BCS game, but it still offers these upperclassmen an opportunity for some redemption.

Can the Sooners turn their bowl fortunes around? Will a fired-up Stanford team become the latest underdog to slay OU in the postseason? Keep an eye on:

1. The Snap for OU

With Brian Lepak a near certainty not to play, Trent Williams, the Sooners' All-American left tackle, apparently will be the fourth player to start at center for OU this season. It will mark Williams' first time spent at center in his four years in Norman.

The center-quarterback exchange can be hard enough to handle for a new battery. When it's the center's first live action, that makes the degree of difficulty that much higher.

2. OU OTs Cory Brandon and Eric Mensik Versus Stanford DE Tom Keiser

Keiser provided one of the few bright spots on an otherwise unimpressive Cardinal defense this season. The sophomore pass rusher finished the season with eight sacks and garnered an honorable mention nod on the Pac-10's all-conference team.

For this game, Keiser has the good fortune of squaring off against Brandon, an object of significant ire from Sooner fans, and Mensik, a tight end who converted to tackle about one month ago. Mensik and Brandon held their own against Oklahoma State in OU's season finale. Is it asking too much of the tackles to keep it up for another game?

3. Stanford's Medium- to Long-Range Passing Game

In addition to the strong running of Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gerhart, young stud quarterback Andrew Luck has enabled the Cardinal to stretch the field with its passing game. Stanford gained an average of 8.9 yards per pass attempt this year, eighth best in the country.

Tavita PritchardComing off of finger surgery, however, Luck probably won't take the field on Thursday. Instead, coach Jim Harbaugh will roll with senior Tavita Pritchard. With Pritchard under center in 2008, Stanford averaged just 6.4 yards per pass.

If Pritchard can't complete throws in the range of 10 yards and beyond, OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables will stack his defense close to the line of scrimmage to keep Gerhart in check.

4. Receivers Targeted by OU in the Passing Game

While sophomore standout Ryan Broyles emerged as a legitimate go-to wideout this year, a solid group of complementary pass catchers never really developed for the Sooners in 2009. During bowl practices, the OU coaching staff usually focuses on the youngsters early on. If offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson seems to target one young receiver besides Broyles throughout the game, it could be a signal as to who will have a bigger role in the offense next year.

5. Whose Weakness is Weaker

If you could combine Stanford's offense with the Sooner defense, you'd have the best team in the nation. Whereas those two units are world-class, OU's offense and the Cardinal D have been sandlot-quality in 2009.

Despite their struggles on the ground, the Sooners may try to exploit Stanford's pathetic run defense. The Cardinal allowed 4.5 yards per rushing attempt this year, ranking 90th in the country. If the Sooners move the ball consistently on the ground, they can shorten the game and limit the chances OU quarterback Landry Jones can throw interceptions, one of his key failings on the road this year.

6. The Sooners' Attitude

Seeing as Stanford hasn't played in a bowl game in who knows how long, you can be sure the Cardinal players will come out sharp in this game.

Are the Sooners taking this game seriously? They say they are ($), and news of the usual off-the-field distractions that crop up during bowl season–academic casualties, disciplinary suspensions–has yet to come out of the OU camp.

With Luck out for this game, OU coach Bob Stoops clearly has the better team in this game. Underdogs are 7-6 straight up in bowls this year, though, indicative of just how important attitude and mindset are in college football's postseason. At the end of the day, the Sooners win here if they are "into it." That is no sure thing.