A few general observations and ramblings as the Oklahoma Sooners enter the final quarter of the 2022 football season:
*Stats guru Bill Connelly of ESPN published a good accountability piece ($) earlier this week expanding on some of his predictions that missed the boat. Bill’s stance on OU was fairly bullish heading into the season, and he attributed overshooting the quality of this OU team to misjudging the amount of talent on the roster. The interesting part to me is that it feels a bit like a conversation about the quality of a team versus the quality of team’s season.
Bill’s model pegged the Sooners in the preseason as the No. 4 team in the entire country. That didn’t pan out, but his numbers also indicate OU hasn’t fallen entirely off the map in what is clearly a disappointing season by the program’s standards. Overall, the team has fallen to 13th in the SP+ rankings – not exactly a collapse.
What has struck me this season is more that it feels like the Big 12 is deeper now than it has been in a while. In conference play, OU has already faced four teams ranked in the top 25 of SP+. (You guessed it – they account for all four of the Sooners’ losses so far.) There is one top 25 team left on the schedule, Oklahoma State, but the Pokes may not stay there for long.
Break it down even further, and the Big 12 has two teams inside the top 10 in Texas and TCU and a third in the top 15, Kansas State. Although OU’s conference schedule in 2021 included four top 25 teams in SP+, none were in the top 10. Last year, Connelly had OU’s strength of schedule as 48th in the country; it ranks 22nd to date this year.
No one would say the ‘22 OU team is up to par, but the degree of difficulty is probably also up a notch to this point.
*There’s a saying in college football: Teams don’t get better – the opponents get worse.
OK, so I made that up, but I have heard some approximation of that sentiment before. More importantly, it feels applicable to the remainder of OU’s season. The spread for the Sooners’ matchup against West Virginia this weekend currently sits at a touchdown, and the games against OSU and Texas Tech will probably land in that same ballpark. Conversely, OU went off as either an underdog or a favorite of five points or fewer in four of its last five contests.
Bottom line: The Sooners should get three wins to close out the season. At this point, you can understand losing to teams like Baylor and KSU in Brent Venables’ first season as head coach. That’s harder for the final three. All things being equal, Venables and his coaching staff need a strong finish as proof of concept.
*As for the talent level of the team, Bill’s assessment seems fair for certain positions. No one would mistake Dillon Gabriel for Caleb Williams, for example, but hopefully everyone knew that coming into the season.
The front six, on the other hand... The lack of progress in those spots seems glaring. The Sooners have no “organic” pass rush – the pressure they do generate is primarily coming from blitzes, and those aren’t getting home nearly enough. Meanwhile, the inside linebackers don’t appear to understand their assignments from play to play, or they aren’t processing information quickly enough on the fly.
Shoring up those holes will have to come from development and recruiting, not the transfer portal.
*Commentators were quietly wondering before the season started if offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh had lost his touch. He has not. In fact, the OU OL may be playing at its highest level in four years or so.
Unfortunately, the unit may lose four of its five starters at the end of the year. The trajectory still looks good when you factor in the quality of OU’s recruiting up front and Bedenbaugh’s track record.
*Running backs coach DeMarco Murray is also earning his paycheck this season. Eric Gray has evolved under his tutelage into a true two-dimensional threat and the focal point of OU’s offense. Most of the credit belongs to Gray, of course, but Murray deserves a measure of recognition for helping to get the Tennessee transfer in gear this season.