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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Final thoughts on the 2023 season

The Sooners finish their final season in the Big 12. What have we learned?

Valero Alamo Bowl - Arizona v Oklahoma Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

What's good?

Heading into 2023 there was a lot to talk about pertaining to the Oklahoma Sooners.

  • How will Brent Venables and Jeff Lebby fare in close games?
  • Does Dillon Gabriel’s inaccuracy on open throws get corrected?
  • Does the ‘key down’ play calling not become a talking point?
  • Who replaces Marvin Mims?
  • Who takes control of the running back room?
  • Does the offensive line’s years of regression finally change course?
  • Does the defense up front see the BV bump?
  • Do the portal additions across the board jump-start the rebuild?
  • Is this team ready for the SEC in 2024?

Well, it is 2024... let us answer those first eight to answer that ninth one.

How did Brent Venables and Jeff Lebby manage close games this year?

In 2022, Oklahoma was historically bad in close games, with their winning percentage in one-score games one of the worst all-time in school history. Coming in with what was billed, and delivered, as an easy schedule, Sooners still played in a bunch of those. This year they went 3-2 in those games. Better. Perfect? Far from it. The Sooner's losses felt so very avoidable against Oklahoma State and Kansas. However, UCF is a game they lose in 2022. Texas is a game they lose in 2022. BYU might be a game they lose in 2022. Improvement in game management was there — slightly. I still think in wins there are reasons to be second-guessing some choices, but 2022 was all-time bad. This season was just slightly poor. Which is a big big improvement. The losses to Kansas and Oklahoma State still really sting.

Did Dillon Gabriel’s improvement in the offseason led to cleaner outcomes in the passing game?

Gabriel went up 6.5% points in completion percentage from last season to this one. Oklahoma will always be known as the school with three different guys making the Heisman ceremony in 3 straight years. A QB school, and growth at the most important position is how I will always judge them. Gabriel was better this year, but the one area I thought he most improved as avoiding sacks. Gabriel, behind in my opinion a worse offensive line, took fewer sacks this season. A little over 30% fewer. Interceptions were still low, so that carried over. Was he one of the best in country? Probably not, but there were times when it appeared to be the case. He was less prohibitive? ABSOLUTELY.

Did Jeff Lebby take himself out of the spotlight by fixing the third down and ‘key down’ play calling?

Yeah, I phrased that question like that on purpose. When it comes to the play calling, and not the off-the-field distraction element, did the Sooners improve? Nope. I mean, do I need to list all the plays this year that made the fan base call for his job? I will simply just remind everyone of the fourth down call in Bedlam. Throwing the ball to Drake Stoops is a great idea. Rolling to the short side and having a route short of the sticks is all-time bizarre. Now, Oklahoma will have a new man calling plays, so we’ll see what changes in 2024.

Who replaces Marvin Mims?

Going into 2023, I was ready to give Jalil Farooq the keys to this receiving room. Generally in a Lebby offense, we see the targets funneled to one guy. Little did I know that I was not dreaming big enough. Drake Stoops became the guy and delivered. Most receptions, yards, and tied for touchdowns. I have long believed that Stoops was underutilized by this team. Well, in year six (!), no one can claim a poor target share for Stoops. Nic Anderson and Andrel Anthony were the breakout stars, though, without a doubt for this team. Becoming the big play threats and getting to double-digit touchdowns for Anderson, including the biggest touchdown against Texas, makes him a very rosey mark. It was also a promising season from Anthony prior to a season-ending injury. I loved that Jayden Gibson showed us some big-play ability, as did the speedy Brennan Thompson.

Gavin Sawchuk had a big bowl game against Florida State in 2022. Is the running back room fully loaded?

This was a room of uncertainty. From Tawee Walker, to Marcus Major, to Jovantae Barnes, and closing with who we all thought would be the leader in the clubhouse — Sawchuk. The running attack left so much to be desired in the early going. Sawchuk, when fully healthy, eventually arrived with the big-play ability and at times kept Oklahoma afloat down the stretch. Gabriel also used his legs more, especially in the red zone this season.

Hard to imagine the Oklahoma offense surviving next season purely on the arm of Arnold, so someone other than Sawchuk will have to step up in 2024. Will it be Barnes? Will it be ballyhooed freshman Taylor Tatum? Will Kalib Hicks take a step forward? It’s safe to say that DeMarco Murray would welcome all three scenarios.

Does the offensive line, which has been in backslide since 2020, finally get fixed?

I have been critical of this room for a couple of years now. The highs of the highs are long gone. Suddenly it seems to be at the point where the expectation is that high-end talent might exist, and one or two players will intrigue the NFL scouts, but the unit as a whole leaves a bit to be desired. The run game was horrible for much of the season. The blame can be shared by many, but this is where I am putting it for the minute — it felt like Gabriel was under pressure this season more than last, and this was with a group that had some experience under its belt. They weren’t good. In this article, I am feeling generally positive about this team going into next year, but this is my bright red “if next season in a complete disaster my guess is because of this” flag. Truthfully, especially after Cayden Green’s exit, I am worried.

Can the front seven be game wreckers like we assumed Brent Venables would deliver?

“New names” was the name of the game going into this year. So much hope for guys from other places. Who led the team in sacks? Ethan Downs, Danny Stutsman, Marcus Stripling, Jaren Kanak, and THEN Kendal Dolby. It takes until the fifth Sooner before we get to the first newcomer. Dolby obviously was in the secondary as well.

Let’s take a look at the defensive front’s portal additions:

Trace Ford - 0 sacks

Dasan McCullough - 0 sacks

Rondell Bothroyd - 0 sacks

Davon Sears - 0.5 sacks

Jacob Lacey - 1 sack

DaJon Terry - 1 sack

Now, it’s worth noting that a defensive player’s impact is not judged solely by stats, and particularly not solely by sacks. Lacey and Terry certainly helped a ton. Still, this is not exactly what anyone was expecting.I have no idea what to make of that. None.

It just seems so random which stars make the transition and which don’t. Bothroyd was given the reigns to make plays from the jump of the season. He did fine, but never really stood out. McCullough dealt with injuries. I don’t put it on the kids. I don’t put in on the coaches. I put it on the fact that we, as a college football whole, haven’t solved how to make player production transferable yet. With the move to the SEC, I’d expect McCullough to play a bigger role at the Cheetah. Lacey and Terry return, and I’d expect them to bring some solid leadership up front.

Danny Stutsman and the returning linebackers absolutely showed some things this season. Ethan Downs had a solid year. PJ Adebawore showed flashes when given the opportunity. David Stone, Jayden Jackson, Nigel Smith and Danny Okoye enter the picture in 2024. The portal will obviously be utilized between now and the fall. The outlook looks good for next year.

Do all these big names from the portal jump-start this rebuild?

See above. The recruiting and development give us hope. I am very high on what OU has done with the young guys. As you can tell, I am not anti transfer portal. I am just skeptical of it being the foundation of a program, obviously. Not every big-time transfer addition immediately blows the roof off of the place. Like freshmen, they need time to get acclimated to the system, too!

Moving Forward

I do believe that Oklahoma can hang in the SEC. OU can be a second-tier team in the SEC next season. For Year 1, that would be acceptable. However, like every team, it isn’t a slam dunk. Oklahoma needs to solve the offensive line badly. Jackson Arnold needs to keep improving. The defensive front seven just needs to hold on the same path it is currently on. Believe in your player development.

Happy 2024 and talk to later, knuckleheads.