Oklahoma football: How good is this Oklahoma team, really?

Oct 23, 2021; Lawrence, Kansas, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Caleb Williams (13) scores a touchdown as wide receiver Jadon Haselwood (11) looks on during the second half against the Kansas Jayhawks at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 23, 2021; Lawrence, Kansas, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Caleb Williams (13) scores a touchdown as wide receiver Jadon Haselwood (11) looks on during the second half against the Kansas Jayhawks at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports /

There are no two ways about it. What we saw from the Oklahoma football team in the near-nightmare game on Saturday against a bad Kansas team does not bode well for the Sooners in critical weeks ahead.

Oklahoma — one of just nine teams able to make that claim eight weeks into the 2021 season — could barely get out of its own way against Kansas and is extremely fortunate not to have been part of what could have been the biggest upset this entire college football season.

Oklahoma eventually pulled it out, but the final score of 35-23 was not at all indicative of how close a call this was for the enigmatic Sooners. This game actually turned on one play.

On a fourth-and-one play at the Oklahoma 46-yard line with under four minutes to play and the Sooners holding on to a 28-23 advantage, Kennedy Brooks took a handoff from quarterback Caleb Williams but appeared stopped two yards behind the first-down marker. At the last second, Williams stepped into the scrum around Brooks, wrestled the ball away and advanced it three yards, good enough for the first down, keeping the Sooner drive alive.

The controversial play was subsequently reviewed and ruled a legal forward handoff. Oklahoma went on to score a touchdown from there, putting the game away. But this call could easily have gone the other way, which would have given Kansas the ball on the OU side of the field, trailing by just five points and with momentum on the Jayhawks side.

Let’s be brutally clear. This Sooner team is not performing like the nation’s fourth-ranked team. Not even close. And that is deeply disturbing because the most difficult part of the schedule is still ahead. The combined record of the next four teams on the Oklahoma schedule — Texas Tech, Baylor, Iowa State and Oklahoma State — is 21-7.

Head coach Lincoln Riley has lamented all season about the Sooners’ inconsistency both offensively and defensively, saying that he knows what this team is capable of and that they are really close to playing at the elite level that everyone in college football expected heading into the 2021 season.

Replacing Spencer Rattler at quarterback with true freshman Williams seemingly has provided the spark that the offense has been lacking, although the first half of the Kansas game left a lot to be desired. The OU offense never got into rhythm in the opening half against the Jayhawks, primarily because the defense was unable to get off the field and turn the ball back over to Williams and the offense.

The Sooners had the ball on offense for just eight minutes in the first half at Kansas. During that time they generated just 78 yards of offense on 17 plays and no points. By comparison, the Jayhawks ran 39 plays in the opening half, including a 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to open the game, and took a surprising10-0 lead into the locker room at halftime.

Oklahoma came back in the second half, as they have most of this season, and won the game, but only by 12 points, 26 points fewer than the 38-point margin the Las Vegas oddsmakers had the Sooners favored by. In fact, the margin of victory would have been a mere five points had OU not scored its final touchdown with just a half-minute remaining in the game.

All of this against a Kansas team that had won just seven conference games in the last 13 seasons — a team that is ranked 109th out of 130 FBS teams in total offense, 123rd in total defense and 123rd in scoring offense. Hardly a victory to celebrate.

In fact, the narrow margin of victory over a far less-talented Kansas team is more reason to fly the Sooner flag at half mast.

Despite what Lincoln Riley would have us believe, how Oklahoma approached this game, with complacency and far too little emotion or respect for their opponent, was highly visible on the Sooner sideline from the very beginning of the contest. And that’s on the Oklahoma coaching staff as much as the players.

As the six-time defending Big 12 champions and a top-five ranked team, the Sooners know that they are a prime target and are going to get the best shot of every team on their schedule, even lowly Kansas.

Speaking mostly about the OU defense, but in general about all aspects of Oklahoma’s season performance thus far, Riley, after the Kansas game, said:

"“We’re obviously pretty thin in a lot of areas. We’ve got to get guys back. The guys that are playing have got to play at a high level, we’ve got to coach them at a high level.“But we’re tired of being close. We’ve got to push it over the edge.”"

Man, do they! Time is running out. Over the next few weeks, “getting closer” isn’t going to be nearly enough.

Inconsistency is something Riley and his staff have become all too familiar with in recent seasons. The last couple of years, the Sooners’ M.O. has been the 180-degree opposite of what it seems to be this season. Before, the operating style of the OU offense was to get off to fast starts, score plenty of points in the early going and build up a two and three-score advantage by halftime. But after halftime, the Sooners would tend to let off the gas and allow opponents back in the game.

This season, Oklahoma seems to have reversed course, struggling offensively in the early going and not truly getting its rhythm going until the second half in many games. The Sooners have come from behind in four of their eight wins this season.

Last season, OU outscored its opponents 284-94 in the first half. In the last six games this season, the Sooners have outscored their opponents 147-76 after halftime. The first half, however, has been a different story. Over the last six games, Oklahoma has been outscored 85-57 in the opening two quarters.

This is a trend that is not sustainable if the Sooners are going to continue winning.

Let’s be honest, if Oklahoma was not still undefeated and had, say, one loss to this point, I seriously doubt the Sooners would be ranked anywhere in the top 10 and perhaps not even in the top-15 nationally. That’s how shaky their top-four ranking is right now.

We could see that played out even further when the initial College Football Playoff rankings come out on Nov. 2.

This Oklahoma team, in all due respect to Texas, is the most talented team in the Big 12 and with the best coaching staff. There is no reason they should be playing from behind so much and having to win games with strong fourth-quarter performances.

The offense still needs to play more consistently, but the defense MUST get better and fast. Otherwise, the Sooners not only can forget about making the College Football Playoff for a fifth time in seven seasons, they will also find themselves on the outside looking in when the Big 12 championship is decided on Dec. 4 in Arlington, Texas.

So, circling back to the original premise of this article: How good is this Oklahoma football team, really? We’re about to find out.