Want to hear something incredible? The Oklahoma Sooners played their last football game one month ago. With all that has happened around the program since then, it feels more like a year.
Frankly, as the Sooners prepare to take on the Oregon Ducks this week in San Antonio at the Alamo Bowl, it’s hard to remember what the team even looked like the last time it took the field. The overwhelming feeling in the aftermath was disappointment over a Bedlam loss to the Oklahoma State Cowboys in which OU looked disjointed. The ensuing shock of Lincoln Riley’s departure for USC meant the particulars of that game got lost in the wash, however.
In light of the coaching turnover and numerous opt-outs by OU players heading to the NFL, that performance – or any other from OU’s 2021 season – may not give us a good gauge of what we’ll see on the field against UO anyway. In fact, the most interesting thing about this game may be who is on the sidelines for the Sooners.
The current line per DraftKings sits at -7 in favor of the OU, which is indicative of the fact that UO’s roster situation is on much shakier ground entering this one. (Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.)
Oregon plays Oklahoma on Wednesday in the Alamo Bowl. Watching the Ducks practice today was more like watching an NFL roster than a college roster. The Ducks are without over 30 scholarship players due to injury, opt-outs, transfers going into the game.https://t.co/nCHrRnMIel pic.twitter.com/lZZRGD2Od8— Matt Prehm (@MattPrehm) December 27, 2021
OU’s interim coach headlines what to watch as the Sooners and Ducks do battle Wednesday night.
Big Game Bob’s coaching cameo
It feels silly to paint filling in as an interim coach as a heroic act. Even so, Bob Stoops probably did as much in the last month to build his legend around Oklahoma as any other time since he came to the state in 1999.
Stoops told the players: "You're OU football. He [Lincoln] isn't." #Sooners— Joey Helmer (@joeyhelmer247) November 29, 2021
By serving as the familiar public face of OU football following Riley’s unexpected departure, Stoops helped ease anxieties among fans. More importantly, he struck the right note by reminding everyone that OU’s players really make the program. That kind of message probably resonates more strongly in a locker room than people outside of it realize. In that sense, Stoops’ protege Brent Venables likely owes his mentor big time for preventing a roster exodus as he takes over as head coach.
Great answer from #Sooners safety Pat Fields about playing for Bob Stoops.— Bob Przybylo (@BPrzybylo) December 26, 2021
Mentioned how much the guys have wanted to be pushed and want to play at an elite level to honor Stoops, in a way. pic.twitter.com/JZqM3AAnC1
In the week before Venables got the job as head coach, speculation ran wild that Stoops would end his retirement and come back as a caretaker for a few years. The fact that he didn’t may offer the strongest indication yet that we won’t see him on a college sideline again after Wednesday. A win seems like a fitting way to give Stoops the sendoff he didn’t get when he stepped down in 2017. (And here’s hoping Stoops makes the first kickoff versus the Ducks an onside.)
The Caleb Williams show
The assistant coaches on the offensive side of the ball for OU find themselves in the unique position of retaining their jobs through a change at the top of the org chart. While the team will have a new offensive coordinator next season in Jeff Lebby, position coaches Cale Gundy, Bill Bedenbaugh, Joe Jon Finley and DeMarco Murray can get an early start on 2022 here.
Keeping promising freshman quarterback Caleb Williams in the fold has been a top priority for the holdovers since Riley left for California. The early signs look good. A showcase game for Williams might help seal the deal – if it’s not already.
Additionally, a star turn versus the Ducks could lay the foundation for a preseason Heisman Trophy campaign and lucrative marketing deals for Williams. Count on Gundy and company drawing up a game plan that gives the young QB plenty of opportunities to make a statement with his legs and his arm.
Reintroducing the wide receivers
If the idea is to let Williams show out, that also bodes well for a group of wide receivers who went underutilized this year.
OU’s leader in receptions, Jadon Haselwood, has already packed up to transfer to Arkansas. Marvin Mims, on the other hand, made it known he’s coming back to Norman, so look for the Sooners to set up some downfield shots to their deep threat.
The future of Mario Williams hasn’t received as much attention as the outlook for Mims, but getting the feisty rookie back next year seems important. He should see more than his fair share of targets.
Other underclassmen like Trevon West and Brian Darby may be in line for more targets than usual, too.
The future of the defensive line
The absences of defensive linemen Perrion Winfrey and Isaiah Thomas, outside linebacker Nik Bonitto and inside linebacker Brian Asamoah took a little shine off this game. So think of it instead as a preview of what OU’s team will look like in ‘22.
Clearly, the defensive front feels like the area to watch. Three-tech defensive tackle Jalen Redmond seems to be trending towards another season in Norman, but we should get an extended look at the candidates to play nose tackle and defensive end next year.
At nose tackle, Isaiah Coe will probably play with the first unit. Josh Ellison, Jordan Kelley and Kori Roberson should expect to see snaps there as well. Keep an eye out for standouts who could catch the attention of the incoming coaching staff.
Defensive end seems less settled. Freshman Ethan Downs played a larger role at the position as the season wore on, but he may find himself headed to three-tech. Does Reggie Grimes still have a future at DE, or will he also be switching positions? Freshman Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge didn’t see much action this year, but Thomas’ absence could put him on the field against the Ducks.
Lastly, the Sooners will likely see a healthy dose of RUSH linebacker Marcus Stripling with Bonitto sitting out and Caleb Kelly’s career ended by another knee injury. The more intriguing option here is freshman Clayton Smith, however. The five-star edge player could get time and still retain his redshirt status under the four-game rule. Smith doesn’t seem to have a natural fit in Venables’ defensive scheme, but the new regime should find a way to get that kind of talent on the field in ‘22.