Oklahoma's long offseason nears its end

Not even days after last season ended, the whispers began.

"You know, OU brings back a pretty good team next year. Maybe even the best team."

Did the Sooners deserve a No. 1 ranking in the preseason?

Months later, 60 coaches and 60 members of the media said yes, anointing Oklahoma as college football's team to beat heading into 2011.

But with a spring and summer to decide, the Sooners sat through plenty of discussion.

"At the end of the day, we always have a lot of hype around us. We really do," said coach Bob Stoops. "There’s always a ton of talk. That’s all it is, is talk."

But that talk served only as a backdrop for an eventful offseason full of highs and lows, an emotional grinder that no other program in college football endured. That offseason will finally screech to a halt on Saturday night when the Sooners host in-state opponent Tulsa.

In May, with several members of the team on a mission trip to Haiti, news broke that Austin Box, a senior linebacker on the team, had died from a fatal mix of painkillers.

"The hard part is Austin, not having him with us," coach Bob Stoops said. "The rest of it is nothing."

For the team's first five days of camp, ESPN's cameras invaded Oklahoma's practice for an all-access special.

"The whole deal with ESPN was very easy," Stoops said. "You really don’t even notice they’re there after awhile."

The result was a few hours of entertaining programming and a look inside the program that Stoops said provided "great publicity for our program and recruiting."

Early in camp, the Sooners were forced to practice without their defensive leader, three-year starting linebacker Travis Lewis. The volume of his voice is surpassed only by the impact it has on his teammates, but that's all he can do for the first few games of the season while nursing a broken toe.

But finally, with a No. 1 ranking and a bona fide Heisman contender at quarterback in tow, the season is just days away.

"The excitement is there because we get to go against another opponent and kind of prove ourselves," said center Ben Habern. "It’s always exciting running out in front of 85,000 people when it’s actually a game experience, so I think pretty much, we’re at the top of our excitement right now."

And what's helped them get to this point, rising above the fawning media and offseason tragedy?

Each other.

"This is the closest team I’ve ever been a part of," Habern said. "Within the locker room, and outside football, we love to hang out. A lot of us go to dinner after practice. We enjoy each other’s company."

Around 50 members of the team bussed to Box's funeral in Enid, Okla., providing support for one another and Box's family. Teammates provided laughs with impressions of Stoops in the locker room, and others retreated back home for a friendly game of soccer on the PlayStation game console.

Receiver Ryan Broyles and safety Tony Jefferson traded friendly jabs on the field early in camp with a bit of trash talk.

Finally, that trash talk and pad pops aimed at teammates will be directed at Tulsa.

"I’m excited to just go through a long season with these guys," Habern said. "And see where it takes us."