Oklahoma football: What Sooners are experiencing may be more Lincoln Riley’s doing

Then-OU coach Lincoln Riley talks with quarterback Caleb Williams (13) during a 37-33 loss at OSU on Nov. 27.cover
Then-OU coach Lincoln Riley talks with quarterback Caleb Williams (13) during a 37-33 loss at OSU on Nov. 27.cover /

There is no question that the Oklahoma football season hasn’t gone the way many among us expected.

After all, this is a program built on a very long run of success. Beginning in the 1950s, when Bud Wilkinson led the Sooners to their first three national championships in a period of six years, no college team at the FBS level has won more games.

Since 1950, Oklahoma has more national championships in football (7) than it has had losing seasons (5). The Sooners have built and owned a reputation whereby they are expected to win, and not just win but compete for conference crowns as well as national championships.

Despite a lot of offseason upheaval involving a coaching change and a revolving door of outgoing and incoming player personnel, there was widespread belief that OU would weather the storm of the Lincoln Riley departure and still find success in 2022.

And the hiring of Brent Venables, from the Bob Stoops’ coaching tree, a proven defensive mastermind who earned his stripes in a big way with the success he had as defensive coordinator for a decade at Clemson, was viewed as the right man at the right time to fix Oklahoma’s defensive struggles.

Some even believed that Oklahoma would be better with the hiring of Venables than it was under Riley. That story is still being written. It’s only in the formative stages just seven games into the Venables Oklahoma coaching era.

It’s only been seven games, but it is abundantly clear this is not the Oklahoma team than anybody expected. And it’s not just the three Sooner losses in those seven games that has signaled the alarm. It’s more the way those defeats came about.

After opening the season with three convincing victories and having Sooner Nation feeling really good about the offseason turn of events, a new reality quickly set in as OU opened the Big 12 season with three consecutive losses.

Two of those defeats — by a shocking 31 points to TCU and an even more horrifying 49 points to Texas — were off the charts and indicative of a team that isn’t nearly as good as many of us thought it was, largely because of a defense that may be even worse than in past seasons.

The Sooners currently stand at 4-3 on the season and coming off an open date to face Iowa State (3-4) on the road this weekend. Oklahoma is looking down the barrel of a five-game second-half schedule on which there is not an easy game. That is just the nature of the Big 12 this season. Some believe it is the strongest football conference top to bottom this season.

How Oklahoma finishes out the five remaining regular-season games will be how the Sooners and Venables’ first year as OU head coach are ultimately remembered.

Venables would be the first to tell you that the buck stops with him in terms of ultimate accountability for Oklahoma’s performance on the field. He’s obviously drawing tons of criticism currently. He will also tell you that the hotter it gets in the kitchen, the more he likes it and thrives on it. Well, now is certainly his time to thrive.

While Venables is taking the heat for the Sooners underperformance in the 2022 season, there is a pretty solid case to be made that the team he inherited from Riley wasn’t as good or as talented as some believed. If you actually look at the numbers and beneath the surface at what has been occurring the last three seasons or so under Riley’s leadership, the performance and direction of the team had been headed more downhill than many want to accept.

In Venables’ defense, the vast majority of the players on the Oklahoma football roster this season are Riley’s recruits and probably not the best fits for the offensive systems and schemes Venables and his staff have installed beginning this season. That’s not an excuse, but rather an actual fact. This will likely correct itself over the next one or two recruiting cycles, especially on defense.

Looking back, there was probably a good reason that the Sooners only had one player named to this year’s preseason All-Big 12 team — and a kicker at that. In recent seasons, Oklahoma has had as many as eight players had as many as eight players on the preseason all-conference units.

Despite the wrath of criticism and second guessing that Venables is undergoing right now — largely from the gloom and doomers who are quick to find fault with anything that is not to their liking — Venables still has plenty of supporters, including Joel Klatt, who teams with Gus Johnson and provides commentary as part of the lead announcing crew on FOX college football broadcasts.

This week on the college football podcast he does for FOX Sports, Klatt acknowledged that Oklahoma definitely needs to get better on defense, but with Dillon Gabriel at quarterback, he said, the Sooners can beat anyone on the remaining schedule. But they can’t keep giving up 40 points on defense to every opponent, he cautioned.

"“Oklahoma needs two wins out of (the remaining) five games in order to go to a bowl game,” Klatt said. “I do believe this is a team that’s going to end up getting those two victories and end up being a bowl team.“It’s just the nature of how they lost, and that’s playing out before us. If their defense can just get a little bit better, their offense is pretty good,” he said. “Two wins in the last five is certainly something you can expect from them.”"

Now all the Oklahoma football team has to do is go out and get the job done…and prove Klatt a prophet in addition to being one of the best broadcast commentators in college football.