Oklahoma football: Three biggest 2022 storylines as Sooners get set to open new season

NORMAN, OK - NOVEMBER 23: Safety Chanse Sylvie #28 of the Oklahoma Sooners runs onto the field for a game against the TCU Horned Frogs on November 23, 2019 at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma. OU held on to win 28-24. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
NORMAN, OK - NOVEMBER 23: Safety Chanse Sylvie #28 of the Oklahoma Sooners runs onto the field for a game against the TCU Horned Frogs on November 23, 2019 at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma. OU held on to win 28-24. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images) /

All offseason, the primary discussion about Oklahoma football has been how would the team respond to the coaching change and all the player movement since the last Sooner football game was played.

The answer to that question will start unfolding on Saturday when Oklahoma goes up against the University of Texas-El Paso in the 2022 season opener for the Sooners.

The Lincoln Riley era is now water under the bridge, and it’s Brent Venables’ team, complete with a new energy, an emerging new culture, and the same high expectations that have been part of every Oklahoma football season.

The general consensus among college football experts is that OU will have a very good team — good enough, at least, to be ranked in the top-10 in the country to begin the new season — but there is also uncertainty about how high the ceiling might be in Venables first season as a head coach.

With the season kickoff for Oklahoma football now just four short days away, here are three main storylines that will certainly define what kind of season the 2022 Sooners will have.

Venables’ transition from defensive coordinator to head coach

Historically, former Oklahoma assistants who have been elevated to head coach have done well in their new roles. Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer, even Lincoln Riley, they all went on to become big winners as head coaches at OU. There is also wide belief that Venables will do well in his new role, as well. The real question is, how quickly will that happen.

We’ll have an early indication of that during the first month of the season. It’s not atypical for a former coordinator, offensive or defensive, to be more focused on his own specialty area. Examples of this are Switzer and Riley as an offensive-minded coaches, while Bob Stoops coached defense throughout his time as an assistant.

Despite their specific areas of expertise, Switzer was able to produce teams that were high-powered on both sides of the ball. The same can be said for Stoops and the Sooners’ ability to recruit and produce explosive offensive teams that were complemented by outstanding defensive units.

The problem under Lincoln Riley was never about Oklahoma’s ability to move the ball and put up plenty of points, and often quickly. While the offensive was one of the best in the country, the Sooner defense wasn’t able get stops, get off the field and prevent the opponents from scoring a lot of points. No one would question that Venables’ has made his mark as one of the best defensive minds in college football, but will the Sooners be able to maintain their high potency offensively while the defense improves, as everyone expects it will under Venables.

Making the right hires for offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator is the real answer here. Venables brought in Jeff Lebby, formerly in the same role at UCF and Ole Miss, to lead the OU offense, and Ted Roof, who has been in the game a long time coaching college defenses, as his main man defensively. If those hires are spot on, Venables will be able concentrate on his head-coaching responsibilities, which are more strategic and directional than hands-on.

New Oklahoma quarterback Dillon Gabriel

Dillon Gabriel is Oklahoma’s sixth starting quarterback in the past six years. And like several before him, he comes into the position as a transfer player. A lot is riding on Gabriel’s shoulders — not to mention his left arm — to lead an offense that for the last five years has been one of best in college football. All indications are that Gabriel has transitioned well into his new team. He stepped into a leadership role early in his arrival in Norman and has earned the trust and respect of his offensive teammates.

Gabriel has a wealth of experience in the starting quarterback role. His freshman season at UCF, he directed an offense that ranked No. 2 in the country in total offense. The Sooners’ new offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby was in the same role at UCF that season. Gabriel’s familiarity and comfort operating in Lebby’s offensive system is a huge plus for Gabriel and the Sooners.

While at UCF, Gabriel threw for over 8,000 yards and 70 touchdowns. With the weapons he has around him in the Sooner offense, if he stays at least two seasons (although his eligibility extends three more years) he should be able to exceed those numbers at Oklahoma.

As Gabriel goes, so will go the Oklahoma offense. Staying healthy is the biggest concern. The Sooners can’t afford to have Gabriel out for any extended period.

Can the defense get markedly better in a short period of time

As an alumnus of the Oklahoma football program, Brent Venables would always have been a favorite-son hire, but it was his superlative defensive credentials that were of giant appeal to Sooner fans. Everyone expects that over time, the Oklahoma defense will again become a real strength as it was over several periods earlier in this century.

For the past several seasons, we saw incremental improvement in a defense that literally hit rock bottom after Venables left the Sooner program in 2011 and in the final seasons under Mike Stoops. But the defensive consistency just wasn’t there. There were too many defensive breakdowns, often too many missed tackles and, ultimately, too many yards allowed and points surrendered.

The Sooners lost some key people on the defensive side after last season. They still have a lot of returning talent, but the backup depth may be an issue. There are pretty high expectations for the OU defense this season. I think it will be better, especially on the back end, where the Sooners have given up far too many big plays in recent seasons.

Not allowing opponents to get back into games after Oklahoma has built double and three-touchdown advantages would be a significant defensive improvement and is something to watch this season.