Are Sooners contenders or pretenders in new SEC football environment?


We've been talking about it for a couple of years now, and in a few short weeks, it all becomes real. On July 1, the Oklahoma Sooners will officially become members of the Southeastern Conference.

And after three opening weeks of home games against nonconference opponents, the Sooners will begin head-to-head competition against SEC opponents and in the conference most everybody who watches the sport considers to be the best of the best in college football.

How will Oklahoma, historically viewed as one of the blue bloods of college football, fit into its new conference environment? Many believe, at least initially, only as a seven- or eight-game winner in a conference top heavy in nine through 12-game winners. The most diehard of the Sooner faithful are hoping the Sooners come in and fool everybody with their performance and competitive nature.

Former OU head coach Bob Stoops always said, to be the best, you have to play and beat the best. Although the Big 12 has some good teams, they are not nearly of the quality or the same talent level of what exists in the SEC. That opportunity alone can only make a program like Oklahoma better and tougher physically and mentally than it was in dominating the Big 12 for more than half of that conferences existence.

Most college football analysts are quick to point out that it isn't that they think the Sooners won't be competitive in the SEC, it's more because of the schedule Oklahoma will face in its first two seasons in the conference.

Like every team in the SEC, Oklahoma will play eight conference games in 2024. Three of those games will be in Norman and the other five away from home, including the annual Red River Rivalry game with Texas at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas . Unlike most other teams in the conference, however, the Sooners appear to have the toughest road to hoe, and it won't only be in 2024. The same schedule of teams flips in 2025, when the only thing that changes is the location of the game.

Based on the 2024 preseason top-25 rankings put out by ESPN recently and based on the cable network's College Football Power Index, six of the eight SEC teams will play in the coming season are ranked in the top-16 in the country. The treacherous gauntlet includes No. 3 Texas, No. 5 Alabama, No. 9 Tennessee, No. 10 Missouri, No. 13 LSU and No. 16 Ole Miss. OU will get Alabama and Tennessee at home in 2024 along with South Carolina, but the Sooners go on the road to play Ole Miss, Missouri, Auburn, and LSU.

Before any Sooner fan decides at this early juncture to raise the white flag in surrender, I should point out that Oklahoma is ranked No. 8 in that same preseason ranking. Too high or too low? That's for the actual games to decide.

When SEC officials constructed the conference schedule looking out over the next two seasons with the inclusion of Oklahoma and Texas, the schedule makers split the league down the middle with half of the teams playing the Sooners and the other half matched up against the Longhorns.

The teams were divided along a natural divide -- Ole Miss/Mississippi State, Alabama/Georgia, Texas A&M/LSU, Missouri/Arkansas, Tennessee/Kentucky, Auburn/Florida and South Carolina/Vanderbilt -- according to sports columnist Berry Tramel in a recent article for the Tulsa World.

When you look at that comparison just with Texas alone, aside with the Longhorns having to play Georgia, it's fairly obvious that Oklahoma drew the short end of the stick.

While the eight games Oklahoma has in the SEC next season are arguably make up the toughest schedule in that conference, if not the country, Texas, one of the projected national championship contenders, has a comparatively easy path to the 12-team College Football Playoff next season aside from a game with Georgia.

The Sooners should easily pick up four wins from a much less competitive nonconference schedule than in most years, but the true test in what Las Vegas oddsmakers are projecting as a seven- or eight-win season for Oklahoma will be how well the Sooners are able to navigate through their daunting conference schedule.

Brent Venables' OU Team 130, as he likes to refer to the 130th team in program history, needs to win at least four SEC games to reach the eight-win total, but where will this four wins realistically come from? I think it's safe to conclude that this Oklahoma team could be the best one in Venables' three seasons as the Sooner head coach, but the record may not reflect that at the end of the season because of the tougher schedule.

While I believe Oklahoma is probably a cusp below being a bona fide SEC contender in 2024, I believe the Sooners are going to surprise quite a few people who have already shunted them off into the "pretender" category.

With that in mind, here is how I think the schedule will play out in OU's debut SEC season:

  • The Sooners will win all four of their nonconference games (Temple, Houston, Tulane and Maine), all at home.
  • OU will defeat South Carolina at home and steal a game at home over either Tennessee or Alabama.
  • The Sooners will probably lose to Texas in this year's Red River Rivalry, but will win at Missouri Auburn, Ole Miss and Missouri and lose the regular-season finale at LSU.

If that is the way the season were to ultimately play out, Oklahoma would finish with a 9-3 record. That is not inconceivable, although it is probably going to require some Sooner Magic along the way.

That's probably the best we could hope for from Team 130, but even if OU were to finish 8-4, I definitely wouldn't consider that a "pretender" in the conference considered the best in college football.