Oklahoma football: Brent Venables knows championship formula

OU head coach Brent Venables stretches with the team before Tuesday's practice at the Everest Training Center in Norman.COVER
OU head coach Brent Venables stretches with the team before Tuesday's practice at the Everest Training Center in Norman.COVER /

The College Football Playoff is entering its ninth year of existence, and the Oklahoma football Sooners have appeared in four of the eight previous Playoffs.

Unfortunately, the Sooners have lost in the semifinal round each time, the last three with former head coach Lincoln Riley at the helm.

The team was shocked along with the rest of the college football world in late November when Lincoln Riley bolted for USC, and a mass exodus of transfers and decommitments quickly followed. Many said the Sooners had taken a step back in the college football pecking order.

Then along came Brent Venables, who has given Oklahoma fans hope and a reason to believe that one step backward could eventually mean two steps forward.

That’s because the teams that have won championships in the College Football Playoff era have all had one thing in common; one formula that has helped them achieve their ultimate goal.

To win a championship in this era of college football, you either need to be an SEC team, or you need to play like one. This means that defense is the bedrock of the program and is able to take over and win games when it needs to, but the offense can fly up and down the field and put points on the board against anyone as well.

OU coach Brent Venables works with players during Thursday’s practice in Norman.jump
OU coach Brent Venables works with players during Thursday’s practice in Norman.jump /

Ohio State was the first champion of the CFP era in 2014, led by Urban Meyer who built his teams in Columbus the same way he built his Florida teams that won two national championships in the SEC in the back half of the 2000s.

Alabama has been the gold standard in college football under Nick Saban and has owned the CFP, winning championships in 2015, 2017 and 2020. The offenses of those years had varying levels of effectiveness, and the Tide haven’t always been as good on offense as they were in 2020. But defense is always the focus and the constant under Saban.

The 2021 Georgia Bulldogs, led by Saban disciple Kirby Smart, had such a great defense that they only needed a satisfactory offense, which they got en route to knocking out Bama in Indianapolis earlier this year.

LSU in 2019 is the only champion of the playoff era who had a significant gap in effectiveness between offense and defense in favor of the “O”. The Tigers ranked 32nd in opponent points per game that year (the Sooners came in at 64th) with the country’s best offense. Still, Ed Orgeron’s defense made plays when needed and had NFL talent all over the field such as: K’lavon Chaisson, Patrick Queen, Grant Delpit, Kristian Fulton, Jacob Phillips, Rashard Lawrence, and Derek Stingley.

And. of course, the only team besides Alabama that has won multiple national titles in the CFP era is Clemson with rings from 2016 and 2018. Dabo Swinney and Brent Venables built the only team that has consistently stood nose-to-nose with Alabama and the SEC since 2015. They are also 2-1 against Ohio State in that same period of time, all in the semifinal round.

Oklahoma’s offense has been phenomenal since 2015, but it takes complementary football led by the defense to win a championship in college football. For reference, here are OU’s rankings in opponent points per game compared to the national champion from each year of the Playoff according to sports-reference.com.

2014 Ohio State: 26th               Oklahoma: 56th

2015 Alabama: 3rd                     Oklahoma: 29th

2016 Clemson: 10th                   Oklahoma: 69th

2017 Alabama: 1st                      Oklahoma: 68th

2018 Clemson: 1st                      Oklahoma: 101st

2019 LSU: 32nd                           Oklahoma: 64th

2020 Alabama: 13th                   Oklahoma: 29th

2021 Georgia: 1st                        Oklahoma: 60th

At OU’s best, they could barely crack the top 30, while the standard for Alabama, Georgia and Clemson is the best in the country. Each of the powerhouses in the sport also have great offenses to boot.

Under Venables, Oklahoma must make defense the focus in order to win championships, not just win the Big 12 and make playoff appearances. They must smother even the best offenses and control games. They must recruit and develop NFL-level talent and athletic freaks the way Venables did over the last decade at Clemson. And they must continue to score at will and will need to physically overwhelm teams offensively.

The good news is, Brent Venables knows what it feels like to have that jewelry on his hands and will no-doubt make a commitment to the defensive side of the ball like Sooner fans haven’t seen in years.