Oklahoma football: What are realistic expectations for Sooners in 2023?

NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 22: The Oklahoma Sooners fans cheer against the Army West Point Black Knights at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on September 22, 2018 in Norman, Oklahoma. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)
NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 22: The Oklahoma Sooners fans cheer against the Army West Point Black Knights at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on September 22, 2018 in Norman, Oklahoma. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images) /

As spring transitions into summer and the countdown to the 2023 college football season draws shorter by the day, anticipation for a much better Oklahoma football performance is being supported by substance.

There is no denying that the Sooners are coming off one of their most disappointing seasons in over a half century of mostly grand success. But there is also a history of OU head coaches showing marked improvement their second season in the position and continuing to get better over time.

The most recent and relevant example was Brent Venables’ former boss Bob Stoops, who was 7-5 in his first season heading the Sooner football program — hardly a poor season by any standard. But in Year 2, as we all recall, Stoops’ Sooners went a perfect 13-0 and won a national championship.

We’re not suggesting the 2023 OU team will go undefeated and contend for an eighth Oklahoma national title, but it is not at all unreasonable that the Sooners could win as many as 10 games and contend for a conference championship in their final season in the Big 12.

There are several factors that are strong indicators for our positive outlook toward what the new season will bring for Oklahoma football in Year 2 of the Venables coaching era. To begin with, as we’ve noted several times before, five of the Sooners’ seven losses last season were by a touchdown or less, and four by just three points.

Like many college teams, Oklahoma lost a number of players to the transfer portal. None of the departing transfer players were starters, however, and what the Sooners got back in the way of incoming transfers, especially on the defensive side, represent a definite net positive over what was lost. OU’s transfer portal additions ranked in the top-10 nationally as a collective group.

And the 2023 OU recruiting class, which features three five-star prospects, including quarterback Jackson Arnold, the 2022 National Gatorade Player of the Year, ranked as the fourth best class by two national media outlets. Several members of the 2023 class are expected to make immediate contributions in the 2023 season.

OU’s 2023 offense will keep on eating

With Dillon Gabriel returning for a second season at quarterback and Arnold grooming in the wings as the Sooner QB of the future, the quality and depth at the position will be much stronger than a year ago, and sophomore running backs Jovantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk primed and poised to become the next great OU running-back duo. There have been some offseason questions about the returning Sooner receiving group, primarily a lack of actual game experience, but there is still plenty of talent and depth at the position.

Jahlil Farooq will naturally step into the role as the lead Sooner wide-receiver target for Gabriel following the departure of Marvin Mims to the NFL and Mr. Reliable Drake Stoops is back for a fifth season. Two wide receivers with size, Jayden Gibson and Nic Anderson — both at 6-feet, 4 inches, something OU hasn’t had at the postion before — will be expected to shoulder bigger roles. Michigan Transfer Andrel Anthony could be the OU deep threat in the coming season. The X-factor, however, could well be D.J. Graham, a converted defensive back with great hands who moves to wide receiver this season.

The offensive line is in a bit of a rebuild, losing two starters from last season, but offensive line coach will get that figured out, as he has been doing for over a decade on the OU coaching staff.

The bottom line is the Sooners will be just fine on offense. The bigger question looking ahead to the 2023 college football season is how much can OU’s defense — the area of the game that OU’s second-year head coach has built his stellar reputation on — improve in just one season after finishing 121st out of 131 FBS teams in total defense. The answer to that question will not be revealed until the Sooners take the field in the fall, but the expectation is that the turnaround will be notable and immediate.

An Oklahoma defensive makeover will be unveiled in the coming season

The 2023 Sooner defense will have talent, returning experience and better depth at the key positions of defensive line and defensive back. Incoming transfer Dasan McCullough, will man the high-impact Cheetah position in Venables’ defense and, along with fellow transfers DB Reggie Pearson from Texas Tech and DLs Rondell Bothroyd from Wake Forest and Jacob Lacey from Notre Dame, should contribute mightily to an OU defensive turnaround in the coming season.

If the Oklahoma defense can get even marginally better, and given that the Sooner schedule this fall is more favorable than it has been in a number of years, it could by itself mean a difference of three more wins in 2023.

Despite all the comings and goings from last season’s Sooner roster, there is still a lot of talent at key positions returning on both offense and defense. That continuity and year of experience in the new offensive and defensive systems incorporated last season will pay dividends and instill greater confidence as the 2023 season unfolds.

"“You know, everybody else can talk about projection of rankings and all those types of things,” Venables said recently at the start of spring practice, “I just want to see improvement in all the basics, the fundamentals.“Our guys played with good effort last year. We just didn’t play or coach well enough in a lot of areas.”"

“I expect us to be on a different planet, defensively,” the Sooner head coach said.

If that belief in fact becomes reality, Oklahoma can’t help but be not just better in 2023…but much better.