Oklahoma football: Five New Year’s resolutions for Sooners in 2023

Oklahoma fans cheer during a Bedlam college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Oklahoma State University Cowboys (OSU) at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. Oklahoma won 28-13.Bedlam Football
Oklahoma fans cheer during a Bedlam college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Oklahoma State University Cowboys (OSU) at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. Oklahoma won 28-13.Bedlam Football /

We’re now a month and a half into the new year, more than enough time to seriously contemplate and complete a list of things we’d like to change or do better in the coming year. Lord knows, there are plenty of things that apply to Brent Venables’ second season of Oklahoma football.

We’ve come up with our own short list of New Year’s resolutions for Sooner football in 2023.

Return to top-25 and national relevance in likely last season in Big 12

In the 87-year history of the Associated Press Top 25 college football rankings, Oklahoma has been one of the top-25 teams at the end of the season 57 times, and mostly in the upper half of the rankings. Since 1936, when the first AP Top-25 poll came out, only one other school, Alabama, has been ranked in the top five more often than the Sooners.

Oklahoma started out the 2022 season as the No. 6 team in the country, but after a 55-34 blowout loss to TCU, the Sooners dropped all the way down to No. 18, and when Texas laid a 49-0 licking on OU the following week, the Sooners fell completely out of the top 25, not to return the remainder of the season.

This is largely uncharted territory for an Oklahoma football team. The Sooners have failed to end the season as a top-25 team just four times, including the 2022 season, since the 2000 national championship season.

The Sooners have too much talent and too much tradition not to bounce back from the disappointment of 2022 and return to its rightful place as one of the country’s top 25 teams. It might not be a top-five or top-10 finish but as many as nine wins is realistic and somewhere in the top 25 is a very achievable goal for next season.

Defense that is in the top-three in Big 12 in points allowed and 3rd-down stops

Oklahoma gave up 30 points a game in 2022, third worst in the Big 12. The real problem with that is the Sooner offense averaged just 33 points a game. The OU defense is going to have to do much better than that if the Sooners are going to improve on their sub-.500 2022 season and turn those close losses into solid wins.

The Oklahoma defense also struggled getting off the field on third down and turning the ball back to the offense. OU ranked 7th out of the 10 Big 12 teams and 88th in the country with a 41-percent success rate getting stops on third down.

Venables shakes off the 2022 criticism and returns OU to Big 12 title hunt

First-year head coach Brent Venables took a lot of heat from the media and some Sooner fans for the team’s poor performance in going from 11 wins in 2021 under Lincoln Riley and falling off to just six total wins this past season. Many expected much better from OU in 2022, and the real surprise was how bad the defense played, which, realistically or not, most everyone thought would be much better, given Venables’ sterling record as a defensive architect.

That may be a bit unfair considering that Venables was not the primary coach for the defense; Ted Roof was the defensive coordinator. But Venables was the one who hired Roof, and you know the OU head coach inserted himself heavily with what went on in the defense, especially over the second half of the season.

"“It’s an easy time now for people to judge us based on being 6-7, and that’s fine,” Venables told reporters recently. “That is what goes with the territory. This is a performance-based business, and people on the outside are going to judge us on that.”"

Venables claims he thrives under pressure. He’s certainly getting his share of it with the high standards and expectations that will always be part of the Oklahoma football program. He needs to shake off all the criticism and start reaping the rewards in season two for the new culture, operational adjustments and personnel additions that have been put in place over the past 12 months.

Where there is smoke, there doesn’t necessarily have to be fire. That will be up the Venables and his staff, starting with a clean slate and an optimistic outlook ahead of the 2023 season.

More consistent and complementary performance on both sides of the ball

There have been noticeably few times in recent seasons when an Oklahoma football game showcased outstanding play both on offense and defense. The Sooner offensive performance has been far more consistent than the struggling defensive play. To get back to the standard of success that has long been the hallmark of Oklahoma football, the defense needs to dramatically raise its performance level and do a better job of complementing an OU offense that might not be at its best.

This is one of the prime reasons Brent Venables was brought in as the 23rd head coach in the storied history of Oklahoma football. It appears that Venables is starting to get the right pieces in place at the right positions, through recruits and transfers, to play the type of tough, physical defense he is known for. We should see the first real advancement of that in the upcoming campaign.

Barnes and Sawchuk the next great OU RB duo

Oklahoma has had some outstanding running back duos over the years — more recently Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon, Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks, and in the Cheez-It Bowl in December we got a glimpse of what the next generation at running back might look like.

Jovantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk were both freshmen in the 2022 season. Must of the running plays in the 2022 season went to Eric Gray, who had his best season as a collegian with 1,366 rushing yards and an average of 6.4 yards per carry. Gray’s primary backup was Barnes, who also had a strong first year. Barnes rushed for 533 yards and five touchdowns.

With Gray having declared for the NFL prior to the Cheez-It Bowl game, Barnes moved up to No. 1 running back and gained 108 yards rushing against a very good Florida State defense. Sawchuk also saw action in the game, the most he had seen all regular season. Sawchuk had 100 rushing yards in the game on 15 carries, an average of 6.7 yards per carry, and a touchdown.

If the 2022 postseason bowl performance is any indication, the OU running game should be in good hands again next season. And the Sooners also have elite running back talent coming in from the 2023 class with four-star prospect Daylan Smothers and three-star RB Kalib Hicks.