The Oklahoma Sooners are one of the most prestigious football programs in all of college football, in a tier with schools such as Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Michigan.
Unlike the other teams in Tier I, the Sooners find themselves unranked and fighting for bowl eligibility with just two games left in 2022. The first and most obvious question is, why? What happened to the Sooners, and how are they in danger of finishing dead last in the conference that they’ve run for the greater part of the last two decades? It’s not exactly an easy answer, but let’s try and diagnose what’s going on.
Defensive Recruiting Not a Priority Sans Venables
The issues begin back during the Bob Stoops era, approximately around the time that the Sooners let Brent Venables walk after the 2011 football season. That same year, Mike Stoops was fired after an eight-year stint as the Arizona WIldcats’ head coach. The Sooners had a down year defensively in 2011, by their standards at the time, and Mike Stoops was going to return to Norman to help turn things around as the co-defensive coordinator alongside Venables.
That wasn’t a good look for the existing coordinator, however, and Venables decided that it was in his best interest to take the defensive coordinator position at Clemson. Little did we know that Oklahoma’s defensive ferocity and success would walk out the door alongside Venables and take root in Clemson, South Carolina, where it would help the Tigers to two national championships (2016, 2018) and four total CFP national championship appearances (2015, 2016, 2018, 2019).
If you’ve been around college football for any length of time, you know that recruiting is the lifeblood of a program. During the nine-year span that Venables was gone from Norman, that lifeblood has been lacking on one side of the ball.
Offensively, the Sooners have arguably been the standard over the last ten years. Under play-callers Josh Heupel and Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma put up points with the best teams in the country and it even got them to the College Football Playoff four times in that span. However, every time that they made it to the biggest stage in college football, their defense let them down.
Here’s a look at the Sooners’ playoff game appearances.
- Clemson 37, Oklahoma 17 (2015)
- Georgia 54, Oklahoma 48 (2017)
- Alabama 45, Oklahoma 34 (2018)
- LSU 63, Oklahoma 28 (2019)
Notice anything, outside of all four appearances being losses? The Sooners gave up at least 37 points in all four games against the best-of-the-best. In fact, Oklahoma’s opponents averaged 49.8 points per game in playoff games, three of which were played under Lincoln Riley and the other under Stoops in 2015.
The Sooners just didn’t have the horses defensively to hold up in those games, and that started shortly after Venables took his scheme and his recruiting prowess to Clemson. Oklahoma’s recruiting completely changed when Venables stepped out, and I took the liberty of seeing just how much it changed.
According to the 247Sports’ database, the Sooners were among the nation’s elite in recruiting defensive talent from 2004 through 2011, in the years that Brent Venables was the acting defensive coordinator. In that span, the Sooners landed 19 defensive prospects that were in 247’s Top 100 composite rankings. For reference, Clemson landed just nine of those players in that same time span. However, from 2012 to 2022, the roles reversed. Clemson landed a whopping 28 Top 100 defensive players, while Oklahoma landed just 10. Here’s a look at the yearly breakdown for each team.
|Year (Oklahoma)||Top 100 Def. Players (Oklahoma)||Year (Clemson)||Top 100 Def. Players (Clemson)|
|2004-11||Total: 19||2004-11||Total: 9|
|2012-22||Total: 10||2012-22||Total: 28|
The table above clearly outlines the difference for both of these teams when Brent Venables is on staff versus when he isn’t. With a Venables-led recruiting effort, a total of 47 top 100 defensive recruits were landed. Without him, just 19 signed between the two schools.
So, step one in getting the Sooners back on track is getting the defensive recruiting back to a higher level, and Venables is already doing that. In the 2023 class, the Sooners have pledges from four top 100 defensive players in 247’s rankings, and could land as many as seven of them by the time signing day comes around. Four would be double the number in any of Oklahoma’s recruiting classes since 2009 and seven would be a total higher than anything Oklahoma has ever signed.
Culture Lacking Under Riley Regime
When Lincoln Riley stepped in as Oklahoma’s head coach in 2017, he took over a ready-made offensive juggernaut that had already won back-to-back Big 12 titles and had made one College Football Playoff appearance, and just smacked a good Auburn team in the Sugar Bowl, 35-19. Names like Baker Mayfield, Joe Mixon, CeeDee Lamb, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, and Mark Andrews were on his roster heading into 2017 and would make up one of the top offenses in college football history, leading them to a third-consecutive Big 12 title.
That team would lose to Georgia in the Rose Bowl, a 54-48 OT heartbreaker, and Heisman-winner Baker Mayfield would go on to be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
In 2018, Kyler Murray would take the reins and one-up Baker Mayfield’s numbers from the previous season, winning a second-straight Heisman trophy for Oklahoma and a fourth-consecutive Big 12 title. Oklahoma would average 48.4 points per game and 570.7 yards per game, both of which led the country that season. However, the defense that season was among the worst that Oklahoma had seen in school history, giving up 33.3 points per game.
During the Sooners’ lone regular season loss, a 48-45 stunner to Texas in the Cotton Bowl, Oklahoma linebacker Curtis Bolton was said to have gotten into an altercation with Sooners’ defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. The Sooners’ inability to correct things defensively created a high-stress situation for players and coaches alike and tensions were reportedly high between Stoops and his players throughout his second stint at OU. Stoops was fired the day after the Sooners’ loss to Texas.
Their year would come to an end against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Orange Bowl in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score of 45-34 indicates. The Sooners fell down 28-0 in that game after the Tide scored the first four times that they touched the ball. Murray would leave early after that season and become the Sooners’ second straight first-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
In 2019, Jalen Hurts took over at quarterback and led yet another potent offense to a fifth-straight Big 12 title, and yet again, a loss in the College Football Playoff. This time it was at the hands of an LSU team that had Joe Burrow, JaMarr Chase, and Justin Jefferson playing catch as the Sooners looked on, dismantling Riley’s squad 63-28 in the Peach Bowl.
Following the loss, Jalen Hurts would leave for the NFL draft and was selected by the Eagles with the 53rd pick in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
When Hurts left the program, several rumors about issues within the Sooners’ locker room started to circle, as Spencer Rattler stepped into the fold as the team’s new quarterback. Rattler’s character was a question for many, as his time in the spotlight in Netflix’s QB1 did him no favors. In 2020, Oklahoma started out 1-2 and 0-2 in conference play before finishing the year on an eight-game winning streak, including a sixth-straight Big 12 title and a 55-20 blowout of Florida in the Cotton Bowl.
Then, the 2021 season came. The alleged tension in the locker room continued to be a talking point for Sooner Nation in the offseason, but Oklahoma was supposed to be a national title contender in 2021. In April of 2021, reports surfaced of three Oklahoma players being connected to an armed robbery in Norman, and a few weeks later wide receiver Trejan Bridges and running back Seth McGowan were charged with robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. Running back Mikey Henderson was later connected as the third person involved in the crime and was dismissed from the team amid the investigation.
The Sooners trudged on without three of its top offensive playmakers, but it quickly became apparent that they wouldn’t have won a national title that year, even if it had everyone available. After a 40-35 win over Tulane, a 23-16 escape from Nebraska, and a 16-13 win over West Virginia, it was clear that Oklahoma wasn’t nearly the team it was expected to be. The rumors of division in the locker room started to turn into roars, and with a quarterback controversy between Spencer Rattler and Caleb Williams growing, a complex and deeply-seeded turmoil started to eat away at team chemistry. One source close to the program even went as far as to say that the Oklahoma program had started to “rot from the inside out.”
Oklahoma fans consistently heard, “we’re close,” from Riley during every week’s press conference (except for the one he missed before Baylor for “personal reasons”) but nothing ever changed. Oklahoma had to outscore its opponents, and when it faced teams with great defenses, Baylor and Oklahoma State, it floundered.
Following the loss to Oklahoma State, Riley famously told the media that he wasn’t going to LSU, but hours later boarded a flight to Southern California. In the aftermath of his departure, Oklahoma lost nearly half of its roster, whether to the transfer portal, graduation, or the NFL draft. Any semblance of leadership and an abundance of experience and top-tier talent left Oklahoma for greener pastures and left Brent Venables with limited tools to clean up a major mess. Now, we are seeing what he was truly up against when he took over the program last December.
A Total Rebuild is What the Sooners Need For Sustained Success
Last Saturday’s 23-20 loss to West Virginia set a new low point for the Sooners in the post-Bob Stoops era, moving OU to 5-5 on the year. Three days later, Brent Venables met with the media and still had the same fire and intensity in his eyes that we’d seen in his introductory speech months before. Venables did however approach his team’s situation realistically and reflected on the disappointing season to this point.
“Again, okay, we’re having a 5-5 [season],” Venables said. “So, it’s been how many years? It’s been a long time since Oklahoma has been 5-5. I’ve never been 5-5. But it’s also I think you have to be real and practical. And I think this is the biggest roster turnover that’s ever happened here. Right? I think that’s fair to say. So, that’s never happened until now, too. So, I think a lot goes into it.”
To Venables’ credit, he was right. The Sooners hadn’t been 5-5 since Howard Schnellenberger’s lone season at the helm in 1995. The years that followed weren’t good either, going 3-8, 4-8, and 5-6 from 1996-1998 under John Blake. I’m not convinced that Oklahoma is headed to that level of mediocrity again in 2022, but I do think that a reset of massive proportions is needed and we are seeing that play out right before our eyes. All of the frustration, anger, and disappointment in Norman is necessary for the change that needs to take place, and that change is massive after the state that the program was left in following the 2021 season.
Following the Sooners’ first win of 2022, a 45-13 victory over UTEP, Venables used the analogy of tearing a house down to the studs and starting over.
“On Monday we’re going to strip this thing back down to the studs and start over again,” Venables said at the time. “And that’s what the great programs can do, player-driven, coach-driven, everybody having a sense of urgency and desperation about starting over. No matter what happened, no matter how you play, you got to start completely over all the way down to the foundation and do it again this week…You’ve got to be committed to a process in how you play and compete at a really high level. And it’s a very hard thing to do. Winning is hard enough. Winning consistently is even harder. So, the tell of that tape will be told over the course of time.
I’m sure it’s no accident that the analogy that Venables used then is reflective of what Oklahoma will likely do this off-season once the pads and helmets are hung up for the year. Reports out of Norman suggest that there will be another mass exodus again this offseason, but this time around it appears to be planned. There will be several Sooners hitting the transfer portal in December, some to find a new opportunity while others are being told that it might be in their best interest to look elsewhere moving forward. So, what does this mean for Oklahoma?
Well, it means that things might get worse before they get better.
If Oklahoma’s roster turnover is massive again in 2022-23, should we expect another down year? Potentially, but that is just the reality of the situation in Norman. There will undoubtedly be contributors for Oklahoma to leave after this season, be it to the NFL or to another collegiate program and by the sounds of it, there might several. The 2023 recruiting class might be the most important one that Oklahoma signs in years because the Sooners might need several of those commitments to be day-one difference-makers. Venables will likely have to dip into the portal a bit more than he wants to this offseason as well, but it will likely be out of necessity.
There are players in the portal that won’t ever get the chance to play at Oklahoma, regardless of their talent level because Venables is a true believer that teams recruit their problems. Character is just as important as scheme fit in Venables’ version of the Sooners, and that might prolong the turnaround, but the sustained success that follows when a program is built on those kinds of pillars is worth the wait.
Brent Venables is the right man for the job at Oklahoma and don’t let “experts” like Collin Cowherd or Paul Finebaum tell you otherwise. Venables is a proven winner, has unmatched experience in Championship-level games, and has a pedigree that is shaped by more than 20 years of coaching experience under three Hall-of-Fame mentors.
It’s going to take a couple of years for Oklahoma to get back to winning football games at the same level that it has been in recent memory, but I can tell you one thing: they definitely won’t look the same doing it when it happens.
Winning games 55-50 each and every week will no longer be the “Oklahoma way” of doing things. The Sooners are headed towards a new era of football, and with top-level defensive talent heading back to Norman, things will change in a big way in 2023 and 2024. The only thing that Sooner fans need to do at this point is to be patient, show up, and be loud on Saturdays.
This Saturday, one of Oklahoma’s biggest recruiting weekends of the year is taking place against Oklahoma State. There are five-star players from the 2023, 2024, and 2025 classes set to be in Norman for the game. Many of those players will end up starting in Brent Venables’ defense over the next few years, and when they get to Norman and stay for good, things will be better. Turnarounds don’t happen overnight. Tearing a house down to the studs takes a long time, and building it back the right way can take even longer. However, the end result is always more valuable than what you started with, as long as the remodel is done by the right person. Brent Venables is the right person in Norman, and that will be proven soon enough.