Oklahoma football: What to expect from Team 129 in 2023 season opener

Oklahoma coach Brent Venables runs onto the field before a college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the UTEP Miners at Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. Oklahoma won 45-13.
Oklahoma coach Brent Venables runs onto the field before a college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the UTEP Miners at Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. Oklahoma won 45-13. /

Oklahoma football opens its 129th season on Saturday with an early 11 a.m. kickoff at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium against the Arkansas State Red Wolves.

The Red Wolves are out of the Sun Belt Conference. They were 3-9 a year ago and tied for last in the 14-team conference. If you’re not familiar with Arkansas State, you’re probably in good company. The Sooners and Red Wolves have played only twice before and not since the 2000 season.

The first meeting between the two schools was in 1992 with the Sooners winning 61-0 in Norman.

Perhaps there are some good historical omens to come out of this year’s matchup between the two teams. When OU and Arkansas State last played each other, it was in Bob Stoops’ second season as head coach, the same as this season for Brent Venables. Venables was a member of that 2000 Sooner team as co-defensive coordinator.

Oklahoma won the 2000 game 45-7 to give the Sooners two consecutive wins to open the season. Of course, everyone in Sooner Nation remembers that OU went on to a perfect 13-0 record that season and was crowned national champions. Might history repeat itself 23 years later?

First things first. The Sooners need to take care of business against the Red Wolves on Saturday.

The Sooners have faced Arkansas State twice in their history but have gone up against Butch Jones-coached teams three times — but not while he has been head coach of the Red Wolves. Oklahoma won all three games: a 31-29 road win over Cincinnati in 2010 and wins in back-to-back seasons over Tennessee, 34-10 at home in 2014 and 31-24 in double overtime at Tennessee in 2015.

Something both teams have in common is having a former player return after one season at South Carolina. TE Austin Stogner is back at OU after playing last season for the Gamecocks. He played his first three seasons at Oklahoma. Wide receiver Corey Rucker was a teammate of Stogner’s last season at South Carolina, but he has returned to Arkansas State this season. The two players wikll oppose each other on Saturday.

Oklahoma returns 10 players who started at least nine of the team’s 13 games last season. With 47 new players joining the roster for the 2023 season, 52 percent of the roster is made up of first-year Sooners. Ninety-nine of the Sooners’ 125 players are either first- or second-year Sooners.

History has served Sooners well in season openers

The Sooners are 99-23-6 all-time in season openers. They have won their last six season openers and 12 of the last 13. The one loss during that string was a 23-13 road loss to Houston to open the 2016 season. In addition, Oklahoma is 80-15-4 in its first home game of the season.

What Oklahoma returns for the 2023 season

Rushing yards: 53 percent

Passing yards: 99 percent

Receiving yards: 33 percent

Scoring: 60 percent

Total offense: 78 percent

Tackles: 52 percent

Tackles for loss: 61 percent

Sacks: 68 percent

Interceptions: 59 percent

Forced fumbles/recoveries: 100 percent

Field goals: 100 percent

Punting yards: 0 percent

When Oklahoma has the ball

Among the returning Oklahoma starters are quarterback Dillon Gabriel, the 2022 Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year; sophomore running back Jovantae Barnes, the team’s second-leading rusher from a year ago (519 yards) and the Sooners’ third- and fourth-leading pass receivers (Jalil Farooq and Drake Stoops).

OU is especially deep at running back, where Barnes, Marcus Major and Gavin Sawchuk will see the majority of the playing time.

At wide receiver, in addition to returning starters Farooq and Stoops, only two other wide receivers have caught a pass in a real game in a Sooner uniform. Redshirt-freshman Nick Anderson and sophomores Gavin Freeman and 6-foot, 5-inch Jayden Gibson have stood out in fall camp and Michigan transfer Andrel Anthony has been impressive as well.

The offensive line returns only two starters, but offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh always manages to put together a solid group up front.

When the Sooners are on defense

The Sooners have upgraded their defense with defensive line transfers Rondell Bothroyd (from Wake Forest), Trace Ford (from Oklahoma State), Da’Jon Terry (from Tennessee) and Jacob Lacey (Notre Dame), linebacker Dasan McCullough (Indiana) and safety Reggie Pearson (Texas Tech). True freshmen P.J. Adebawore, a defensive lineman, and Peyton Bowen, a safety, were among the top defensive players in the 2023 class and should see plenty of playing time in backup roles.

Danny Stutsman returns at linebacker and Ethan Downs is back for another season on the defensive line. Stutsman led the team and the Big 12 in tackles a year ago. Downs led the Sooners in 2022 with 13.5 tackles for loss and was the only Sooner named to the 2023 Preseason All-Big 12 Team. Junior Billy Bowman and redshirt-senior Woodi Washington return on the back end and as leaders within a defensive back room that is a prime example of the competitive depth that Brent Venables has been talking about all offseason in describing this year’s Sooner team.

What to keep an eye on as a fan

Things to watch in the season opener and especially when Big 12 play begins — which for OU will be on the road Sept. 13 at new Big 12 member Cincinnati — is improvement in the Sooners’ much-maligned defense, which finished the 2022 season ranked 122 out of 131 FBS teams in total defense, 105th in run defense and 118th in defending the pass.

The Oklahoma defensive line was bullied and pushed around all last season and wasn’t able to get consistent pressure on the quarterback or stop the run. A major emphasis has been placed on upgrading this area. This is something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

The Sooners have a host of wide receivers who haven’t seen a lot of playing time before this season. Who and how many will emerge out of that group and become playmakers, giving Gabriel additional receiving targets he can rely on.

Special Teams

For the first time in a long while, Oklahoma will have new players at punter, long snapper and holder. Zach Schmitt is back as placekicker. He was 13 of 19 on field goal tries a year ago but a perfect 57 of 57 on extra points. The Sooners lose the best punter in the Big 12 last season in Michael Turk. Those duties will fall to either Luke Elzinga, a transfer from Central Michigan, or Josh Plaster, who transferred to OU from Arizona State after the 2020 season.

Marvin Mims handled punt returns for the Sooners the past three season. That job will now fall to either Drake Stoops or LV Bunkley-Shelton. Jalil Farooq and Billy Bowman have handled kickoff return responsibilities in the past, although Bowman was hurt returning a kick early in the season last year, which may give the Sooners some pause before utilizing a key defender that way this time around.

How to watch

The Oklahoma-Arkansas game will be televised on ESPN on Saturday beginning at 11 a.m. Roy Philpott, Roddy Jones and Taylor McGregor will do the announcing.


The Las Vegas oddsmakers have established Oklahoma as a 35-point favorite in the season opener with Arkansas State. This is a mismatch from the get-go. I’m taking the over on that spread. Oklahoma 52, Arkansas State 7