GLENDALE, Ariz. There was a familiar feeling when Oklahoma stepped off the plane at Phoenixs Sky Harbor Airport, from the warm weather to being a huge favorite in the Fiesta Bowl.
Not wanting it to turn into a here-we-go-again feeling for the New Years Day game against No. 25 Connecticut, Sooners coach Bob Stoops made everything as different as he could on this trip, including changing the team hotel and practice site.
After five consecutive losses in BCS bowls, two of those in the Fiesta Bowl, you cant blame Oklahoma for wanting to change things up.
Its a totally different vibe, a totally different atmosphere now, Oklahoma receiver Cameron Kenney said. Everybody is in a businesslike mentality. I dont know how it was in the past. Everyone seems to be really focused right now.
The Sooners need to be.
Even as 16½-point favorite, No. 9 Oklahoma cant afford to take the hard-running, Big East champion Huskies lightly. Not after what happened the past two times at The University of Phoenix Stadium.
In 2007, Boise State was still a novelty, a bunch of trick-playing Broncos trying to prove to the rest of the country they belonged on the same field with the might Sooners. They did just that, pulling off the upset in perhaps the most entertaining of the 39 Fiesta Bowls.
A year later, another forgettable game for the Sooners.
Again a favorite, this time facing a team with an interim coach, Oklahoma came out flat and got run over by West Virginia, which set a school bowl record with 525 total yards in the unexpectedly resounding 48-28 win.
Combined with three losses in the BCS title games, Oklahoma is 0-for-5 in BCS bowls since 2004, with a pair of wins in lower-tier bowls mixed in.
Each year is a different game, a different team, Stoops said. Our players understand it, but they also know this is this years team, and we havent finished yet. This is part of the process of this year, and weve answered a lot of other questions through the year. This is another big step.
It may be a bigger one for UConn.
The Huskies have made a steady climb since joining the major college football nine years ago, earning bowl berths four consecutive years and winning two bowls.
UConn overcame an 0-2 start in the Big East this season and a 1-2 overall start by winning its final five games to share the conference title with West Virginia and Pittsburgh. The Huskies earned the tiebreaker and the automatic BCS bowl bid, their first as a program.
The Fiesta Bowl will be new territory for the Huskies, but theyre trying to treat it just like any other bowl.
The fortunate thing for us we have been to four other bowl games, and we have had a routine of how weve worked when we went into those games, UConn coach Randy Edsall said. Weve really stuck to the same type of plan.
Bigger than that will be the plan to stop Oklahomas speed-you-up offense.
Led by quarterback Landry Jones, All-American receiver Ryan Broyles and running back DeMarco Murray, the Sooners are deep, talented and play at a lung-searing pace, churning out more plays than any other team in the country.
UConns coaches have taken steps to prepare their players for Oklahomas offensive wave, rotating in scout teams and having the defense go against the first-team offense in practice, but the Huskies wont get a true sense for the pace until they hit the field for that first series.
They throw out punches and bunches, UConn defensive tackle Kendall Reyes said. They are very up-tempo; they throw a lot of looks at you; they get rid of the ball fast, and you always got to be on your toes against this team. We will just be physical with them and try to slow down their pace of the game.
Connecticut has a weapon of its own: running back Jordan Todman.
A second-team All-American, Todman is a relatively small back (5-9, 193 pounds) who runs much bigger, getting most of his yards between the tackles. Even with teams gearing up to stop him UConn was 112th nationally in passing Todman still churned out the yards, finishing as the nations second-leading rusher behind Oregons Heisman Trophy finalist LaMichael James.
Everybody knows Todmans a great running back, Oklahoma defensive end Jeremy Beal said. They try to just physically dominate you. Its going to be a physical game.