For about 20 years, we’ve had a good idea of what to expect from the Oklahoma Sooners in the coming season. The particulars differed, but Sooners would probably win at least 10 games and have a shot at winning the Big 12. A desirable postseason destination usually felt like a solid bet.
Despite a change at head coach and significant roster turnover, college football’s preeminent analytics guru doesn’t see much changing for OU in 2022. ESPN’s Bill Connelly on Wednesday published his preseason SP+ projections for 2022, and his numbers rank the Sooners as the No. 7 team in the country heading into the season.
Interestingly, that would represent a step forward for the program from last season, when OU was billed as a contender for a national championship prior to the season. The Sooners floated through a lackluster 2021 campaign in which they finished with an 11-2 record and missed the reanimated Big 12 title game for the first time in five years. OU ended the year at 13th overall in the SP+ rankings.
The source of OU’s predicted improvement, per SP+? Defense. The Sooners tumbled from 15th in Defensive SP+ in 2020 to 58th last year. They’re projected to improve to 27th in ‘22.
Meanwhile, SP+ isn’t projecting much of a downturn in offensive efficiency for OU after the departures of head coach Lincoln Riley and star quarterback Caleb Williams for USC. The Sooners check in at sixth nationally in Offensive SP+ for 2022, down slightly from No. 3 last season.
Lonely at the top (three)
As has been the case for what feels like forever, SP+ sees a clear separation between a handful of top teams in ‘22.
The top three squads – Ohio State, Alabama and Georgia – sit within about 3.5 points of each other in their overall SP+ rating. The gap between UGA at three and No. 4 Michigan is six points.
In other words, SP+ would likely forecast the Buckeyes playing either the Crimson Tide or the Bulldogs for the national title in January. Something completely different.
(As an aside, Ohio State will have a filthy offense if the model is correct. Get your bets in now on C.J. Stroud to win the Heisman Trophy.)
A down Big 12
The Big 12 had a solid collection of teams in ‘21, according to SP+. Five teams finished 21st or better overall – No. 12 Oklahoma State, No. 13 OU, No. 15 Baylor, No. 19 Iowa State and No. 21 Kansas State.
The SP+ outlook for this year is far less rosy. After OU at seven, the closest Big 12 team to the Sooners is Baylor down at 30. Texas and OSU aren’t far behind at 33rd and 36th, respectively.
Based on the projections, the Sooners would probably be close to double-digit favorites in every Big 12 game except for the Red River Rivalry game against the Longhorns. In fact, SP+ would make OU’s trip to Lincoln to take on Nebraska the Sooners’ toughest game of the season.
Connelly did point out that his system doesn’t take coaching changes into account. With first-year coach Brent Venables installing his defensive scheme and new offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby putting his offense in place, a seamless transition to the next era of OU football is no sure thing.
Frankly, coaching turnover isn’t the only reason why skepticism about the Sooners in ‘22 seems reasonable. A number of contributors joined Williams in skipping town via the transfer portal, including two of the top four receivers from the ‘21 squad. Additionally, 11 players from last season’s team received invitations to the NFL combine in Indianapolis this year.
But that last data point also speaks to one of the reasons for optimism about the upcoming year: A team with that many NFL prospects scraping by like the Sooners did in ‘21?
OU underperformed last season. That doesn’t mean the program needed a regime change – that kind of thing happens in college football, after all. It does go to show that OU wasn’t necessarily firing on all cylinders.
So what if Riley simply hit his expiration date in Norman? In that case, bringing in a new coach like Venables could give the Sooners a needed jolt.