Lincoln Riley offense or Brent Venables defense? Which would OU be better off with in SEC?

Oct 28, 2023; Lawrence, Kansas, USA; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables watches play against the Kansas Jayhawks during the first half at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 28, 2023; Lawrence, Kansas, USA; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables watches play against the Kansas Jayhawks during the first half at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports / Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma has had almost three years to prepare for a football life among the best of the best in the SEC. That day is now here, and in 51 days the Sooners will take the field at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium to compete for the first time as a member of what most believe to be the strongest football conference in the college game.

Several days ago, I posted an article on why the Sooners are a more well-rounded team and better prepared to compete in the SEC thanks to Lincoln Riley bailing out when he did. Today I approach that same subject from a different angle.

Would Oklahoma be better off as it enters its first SEC season with Riley's prolific offense or Brent Venables' disciplined, disruptive defense with multiple disguises?

Riley's Oklahoma teams, both as offensive coordinator and head coach, were some of the highest scoring and most exciting teams offensively in OU football history. Those teams could score in a heartbeat and from any place on the field.

Great offense wins you a lot of games; great defense wins championships

Venables has built his reputation on defensive excellence. He had some good defensive teams at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops. As defensive coordinator at Clemson, he was part of two national championship teams (2016 and 2018) and Clemson teams that made six consecutive College Football Playoff appearances. Five of those CFP teams finished in the top 10 in total defense and two were in the top four in the country defensively.

Believe me, Venables knows what constitutes a championship-level defense, and more important, he knows how and who to recruit the complement of players required to execute at an elite level, including back-up depth.

During the five seasons that Riley was the head coach at OU (2017-2021), the Sooners won four consecutive Big 12 championships and made three straight College Football Playoff appearances (2017-19). Over that same span, Oklahoma ranked no worse than 8th in the country in scoring offense, including in the top three in two of the seasons (2017-18). In two of the five seasons, Riley's Oklahoma teams finished in the top three in total offense and twice No. 1 in the country, averaging nearly 600 yards per game.

All offense, no defense ultimately spells doom

The problem with those high-powered Oklahoma offenses under Riley's reign was that the Sooners practically had to score on every possession because defensively they were unable to stop anybody and surrendered plenty of points. And when the Sooners encountered good teams -- like the ones OU faced in the College Football Playoff under Riley -- that could both put points on the scoreboard and limit the scoring opportunities of the opposition that disparity proved fatal.

No. 2 Oklahoma faced No. 3 Georgia in the 2017 national semifinal. The Sooners jumped out to a 31-17 halftime lead but couldn't hold on in the second half. Georgia outscore OU and Baker Mayfield 28-14 in the second half to force overtime, It took two overtimes, but Georgia ultimately prevailed 54-48.

The following season, the Sooners made it back to the playoff, where they were matched up with another SEC team in top-seeded Alabama. The Crimson Tide punched Oklahoma in the mouth early, jumping out in front 28-0 just 17 minutes into the game. The OU offense behind QB Kyler Murray made a game of it late, but wasn't able to recover from the early blitzkrieg and fell 45-34. Again, not getting enough defensive stops proved to be the Sooners downfall.

In the 2019 season, Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts lead Oklahoma to a CFP semifinal showdown with No. 1 LSU and Joe Burrow. This game was a blowout from the start. OU fell behind 35-7 early in the second quarter, and the game was all but over at that points. The Sooners wound up putting 28 points on the scoreboard, but eventual national champion LSU totaled 63 points in a 35-point win over Oklahoma.

Some have labeled Oklahoma's 2024 schedule as something akin to a death march through the SEC. The Sooners will play two of the three College Football Playoff teams they lost to (Alabama and LSU). In all, six of the eight SEC opponents on the OU schedule this fall will likely by top-25 teams to start the season. The only top SEC team Oklahoma will avoid this year is Georgia, which probably will be No. 1 when the preseason Associated Press and Coaches polls come out in August.

To get back to the original question posed at the beginning of this article -- would you rather have Lincoln Riley's offense or Brent Venables' defense to begin play in the SEC? -- the SEC was once a defense-dominated league, but over the last couple of decades the conference has evolved into a league with some of the best offenses in the country. Looking at the 2023 season, six of the nation's top-30 scoring offenses were FBS teams that currently reside in the SEC.

If you don't play halfway decent defense -- this coming season or any season -- you're probably not going to win many games in the SEC, no matter how many points your offense can put up. In recent seasons, the Sooners have been a living example of that.

The conclusion: Side with Brent Venables' defense -- which will only get better -- in combination with an OU offense that still has enough offensive weapons to sustain a high-level of performance and productivity.