The Alabama Crimson Tide and Georgia Bulldogs didn’t exactly stage a classic last week in their rematch for the national championship in Indianapolis, but the two SEC powerhouses entertained the masses nonetheless. After receiving shellacking from the Tide in the SEC title game last month, UGA got revenge in a 33-18 win that brought home the program’s first national crown in 40 years. The victory positioned Kirby Smart’s program as the latest – and perhaps biggest – threat to the dynasty that his mentor Nick Saban has built in Tuscaloosa.
The matchup also crystallized for the Oklahoma Sooners what’s waiting for them when they move to the SEC. No one should mistake those versions of the Tide and Bulldogs for all-time great teams, but they have a fair claim to the two best rosters to ever take the field together in college football history. Neither program is slowing down, either.
It spoke to the lopsided talent distribution in college football to have two SEC teams playing for the national title again. More importantly for OU, the makeup of those two teams showed what it will take to compete for supremacy at the conference – and, by extension, national – level in the coming years.
Assessing OU’s situation through that lens, it becomes easy to exaggerate the program’s proximity one way or the other to an Alabama or a Georgia. When the 2017 season ended for the Sooners with a double-overtime loss to UGA in the College Football Playoff, the Sooners seemed to be ascending in Lincoln Riley’s first year as OU’s head coach. Five years later, an OU team supposedly primed to challenge for a national title couldn’t touch the national elites. Even though an 11-2 record is far from a disaster, OU ranked 17th overall in SP+ in 2021. It represented the team’s worst finish since 2014.
So what will it take for OU to hit the ground running under new head coach Brent Venables when the Sooners do move to the SEC?
The easy answer is to improve recruiting. As previously mentioned, OU is entering a league in which two of the 16 members managed to amass historically great rosters in the same season. Saban and Smart make it their mission to build up top-end talent at every single position on the field, and they’re succeeding. Meanwhile, future conference foe LSU joined UGA and Bama in the top five of the 2021 College Football Team Talent Composite from 247Sports. Oh, Texas A&M is also in the process of landing the best recruiting class in the country this year.
On the other hand, OU already recruits well. Riley and his staff built the sixth-strongest roster in the country in ‘21, per the 247 composite. Even after Riley departed for USC at the end of the season, OU still has the No. 10 recruiting class in the country this year.
In reality, the odds are extremely long that the Sooners ever reach a point at which they are routinely putting together Tide-like rosters. The program still has room to grow before it hits its recruiting ceiling, though. Putting that SEC patch on the Sooners’ jerseys actually eliminates one of the biggest headwinds OU has faced on the trail.
It seems reasonable to believe OU can turn its top 15 recruiting classes into top 10s and top 10 classes into top fives often enough to improve its roster from top to bottom.
Importantly, where Venables and his staff add studs through recruiting may matter more than how many how they add.
OU’s recent matchups in the College Football Playoff against the best SEC squads revealed material gaps in the trenches. The inability of the Sooners’ defensive lines to hold up at the point of attack, in particular, put its games against Bama in 2018 and LSU in 2019 out of reach before they even kicked off. The Tide and Tigers proved from the jump they could bully OU’s defensive front at will.
Frankly, the fact OU’s defensive line was overmatched in those matchups shouldn’t have surprised anyone who followed the program. SEC teams have flaunted their advantages along the defensive front for years, and that helped keep the Sooners locked out of the living rooms of elite DL recruits for more than a decade.
In its 10 classes from 2013 to 2022, OU landed a total of 46 defensive linemen. They included 20 blue-chip prospects. In that same time frame, Bama has signed 44 blue-chip DLs alone, while UGA has landed 33.
Needless to say, the Sooners have to start signing more high-caliber DLs; everyone in the coaching offices has known that for years, though. The good news is that by joining the SEC, they can overcome the biggest hurdle to doing so. Not to mention, Venables added the best DL coach in the country to his staff in former Clemson colleague Todd Bates.
Not so long ago, you could count on OU offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh to have one of the best units in the country every year. But if middling play on the defensive line was to be expected, the erosion on the offensive side of the ball recently has been an unwelcome surprise. With all those monsters manning spots on SEC DLs, OU needs Bedenbaugh to find his groove again – and do it quickly.
Unfortunately, the problems with the OL don’t lend themselves to a simple solution. Bedenbaugh’s recruiting hasn’t hit warp speed; it also hasn’t fallen off lately. He missed on some big fish in recent classes, but the Sooners also signed their typical numbers of higher-end prospects.
The larger issue seems to lie in how the program is developing players, rather than the potential of the players joining the program. Some players, such as Tramonda Moore and Stacey Wilkins, left the program without ever really contributing on the field. Of greater concern: the ones who just don’t seem to be progressing.
Take Anton Harrison, for example. The native of Washington, D.C. started earning plaudits from the coaching staff for his potential almost as soon as the first practices of the 2020 season started. During games, though, you could rarely grade his performance as better than simply adequate.
Other sought-after prospects haven’t even advanced as far as Harrison. Players such as Aaryn Parks and Marcus Alexander? There doesn’t seem to be a rush to get them on the field. The lack of maturation has forced Bedenbaugh to supplement the OL with transfers like RJ Proctor from Virginia and ex-UCLA Bruin Chris Murray. Relying on too many short-term rentals for immediate help in that way sounds like begging for trouble.
Frankly, the Sooners generally owned a large enough talent advantage in the Big 12 to win big by occasionally fielding strong units on either side of the line of scrimmage. Lines that could stack up against those of other elite teams around the country essentially turned into a luxury.
Much like elite quarterback play, though, OU should start thinking about strength in the trenches as a necessary condition for success. Anything less won’t fly when the Sooners move to their new home in the SEC.