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College Football Preview 2023: 24. Oklahoma Sooners

Dillon Gabriel, Oklahoma

 24. Oklahoma Sooners

As the Sooners prepare for their SEC jump, the pressure is on for Brent Venables after a disastrous debut

2022 Review
Following a tumultuous offseason that saw both Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams leave for the bright lights of LA, the hope around Norman was that new head man Brent Venables would deliver a sense of calm around the program. But instead, Sooner fans watched with horror as they suffered through their worst season since John Blake went 4-8 in 1997. Things started off fine and good; in fact, a 49-14 throttling of old Big 12 foe Nebraska seemed indicative of a team that still very much a national threat. That was followed by three consecutive losses, including a horrifying 49-0 shellacking at the hands of Red River rival Texas that sent the Sooners spiraling. They were able to salvage three more wins the rest of the way to earn bowl eligibility and actually gave Florida State a fight in the Cheez-It Bowl, but 6-7 was far from a ringing debut for Venables and the new staff. Instead of blowing it up, the Sooners will run back a team that looks very similar in 2023, hopeful that they've fixed the issues that made 2022 such a brutal watch.

2023 Outlook
Offense: Quarterback Dillon Gabriel and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby have a relationship that can be traced back to their days together at UCF, and are now hoping for a grand finale at Oklahoma in 2023. Gabriel was productive during his first season in Norman, tossing for 3,168 yards and 25 touchdowns, but his health has been a regular concern throughout his collegiate career. There's no doubting his ability to put up numbers when he was on the field, but the Sooners absolutely need him to stay healthy if they want to contend for a Big 12 Title.

Nick Evers has moved on and despite the return of Davis Belville, expect true freshman Jackson Arnold to emerge as the clear No. 2 behind Gabriel. Arnold is clearly the quarterback of the future here, but OU would certainly hope for him to wait behind Gabriel and learn for one more year.

Eric Gray is officially in the NFL, leaving feature back duties to either Jovantae Barnes or Gavin Sawchuk. Gray is a huge loss, taking his 1,366 yards with him, but the Sooners are hopeful that the young tandem of Barnes and Sawchuk can grow up fast. Barnes ran for 519 yards in a support role a season ago, but Sawchuk may have the higher ceiling. Expect both to see a heavy dose of action, with Barnes likely to start the season as the No. 1 guy.

Receiver is the position group I'm watching the closest in fall camp for this Sooner offense. Simply put, Oklahoma has not had the weapons there that they once churned out during the peak of the Riley era. There is still plenty of talent, but we will need to see more if the Sooners are to improve on their 32.8 points per game from 2022.

With Marvin Mims now gone, expect junior Jalil Farooq to take first cracks at being the alpha on the perimeter. Farooq isn't your prototypical wide out - he can be used in some creative ways - but he has a solid track record and proved to have a nice connection with Gabriel. Alongside him is veteran Drake Stoops and Michigan transfer Andrel Anthony, a particularly intriguing newcomer. Anthony flashed serious potential with the Wolverines, but it always felt like he was a bit hamstrung by their offense? Will he be able to break through in this wide-open Sooners attack?

There's a familiar name likely to take up starting duties at tight end, as Austin Stogner returns to Norman. Stogner spent three seasons with the Sooners from 2019-2021 but reunited with his former position coach, Shane Beamer, at South Carolina last fall. Now, he's made the decision to transfer back, and is set to take over a large role now that Brayden Willis is gone.

The offensive line appears to be in a fairly good spot, even as three starters depart. Seniors Andrew Raym and McKade Mettauer are proven commodities on the interior who have played their parts in many Big 12 battles. Newcomer Walter Rouse is expected to lock down the left tackle spot after four impressive seasons at Stanford. Rouse made 39 starts in his Cardinal career, including 10 during the 2022 campaign.

Offense was not the major problem for the Sooners last fall, although it still felt like a group that didn't quite live up to expectations. It's certainly not beneficial that Gray, Mims, and Willis are now all gone, bu there's still plenty of playmakers dotting the roster. With Gabriel leading the charge, I still suspect this group to be among the Big 12's best.

Defense: The defensive side of the ball has been Oklahoma's Achilles Heel for some time now, but the hope was that Venables would be able to engineer a quick turnaround. Not only did that not happen, the Sooners were even worse on this side of the ball than the latter half of the Riley years, ranking 99th nationally in scoring defense and 122nd in total defense. 

Considering the struggles, it was a bit surprising that Venables chose not to overhaul either the staff or the roster this past offseason. For better or worse, he will be running back a similar group to what they ran in 2022, although there are some young pieces that could be central figures in a turnaround.

The defensive front absolutely needs to be better. They were pushed around far too easily a season ago and seemed to be mailing it in by the end of the season. There are plenty of familiar faces, namely ends Ethan Downs and Reggie Grimes, but the Sooners better production from the interior of the unit. Downs was the team's most consistent defender last year, with 13.5 tackles for loss, and gives this team a fine starting point.

Senior defensive tackle Isaiah Coe looks like he'll reprise his role as starter after proving himself to be a quality run-stopper, but it will be interesting to see who starts next to him. A name to watch could be Notre Dame transfer Jacob Lacey, who never quite put it together with the Irish but played 37 games over four years in South Bend.

There's reason to believe in improvements from the linebacker corps, as the Sooners bring back tackling machine Danny Stutsman and landed one of the top names in the transfer portal, Dasan McCullough. Stutsman, who notched 125 tackles in 2022, should handle weakside linebacker, while McCullough slides into the other outside linebacker spot. McCullough, who was a Freshman All-America at Indiana, is a relentless pass rusher who provides the type of immediate impact this defense lacked a season ago.

Middle linebacker could be a make-or-break position for the Sooners in 2023. With Stutsman and McCullough, the Sooners don't need a superstar at this spot, but instead a capable defender that can provide a steady hand. Could that be sophomore Jaren Kanak? Kanak flashed at times last fall, including a dominant showing in the Nebraska game, but it felt like he was underutilized. If he's unable to, it's not a super reassuring cast of characters, with a pair of inexperienced options in Kip Lewis and Kobie McKenzie.

Oklahoma's secondary has had some well-documented struggles over the years, but this position group appears to be a strength entering 2023. Losing corner transfer Jaden Davis, who was a late addition to the portal in April, stings, but there's ample experience elsewhere.

Cornerback Woodi Washington has been a program staple since arriving on campus prior to the 2019 campaign and should lead as the top CB this fall. Washington has started 23 games over the course of his OU career and has proven to be a solid, yet unexciting, defensive back. With Davis gone, expect sophomore Gentry Williams to get an early crack at handling the other cornerback spot opposite of Washington.

It's a loaded safety room, led by junior Billy Bowman and senior Key Lawrence. Bowman has impressed during his first two seasons with the Sooners and seems on the verge of something special. Consistency is the next step for the ultra-versatile defensive back. Bowman and Lawrence are the returning name here, although the newcomers are worthy of attention. Reggie Pearson comes over from Texas Tech, while five-star true freshman Peyton Bowen could be in line for immediate action. Pearson is on his third collegiate team after beginning his career at Wisconsin, but should have no troubles manning the starting free safety spot.

Venables and staff did a solid job plugging holes on this defense, but talent was not the primary issue for this group a season ago. There seemed to be a lack of buy-in to this new staff and the attitude just wasn't there. Whether or not that changes will determine just how significant of a turnaround this defense can take in 2023.

Special Teams: The kicking game was a problem last fall, with Zach Schmit going 12 for 18 on the year. The Sooners are hopeful he can get back on track, as no other kicker on the roster offers anything significant in terms of experience. At punter, Michael Turk moves on, which means Oklahoma had to turn to the transfer portal. Central Michigan transfer Luke Elzinga was a solid pickup, but it's certainly not an upgrade here.

Bottom Line
Even as the Big 12 has shifted around them, Oklahoma has been a constant. Few programs in college football have been as consistent since the turn of the millennium as the Sooners, which is why it was so shocking to see last year's debacle. It puts extra pressure on Venables and this staff as they prepare for their Big 12 swan song, but they appear up for the challenge. There are still holes on the roster, but the Sooners did a fine job filling in gaps through the portal, and they're still a force to be reckoned with in high school recruiting. With plenty of experience back on both sides of the ball, and a veteran quarterback leading the way, Oklahoma has the looks of a team ready to rebound, at least on paper. However, as we gear up for the weirdest Big 12 season in memory, one with 14 teams looking to bring home a conference title, predicting anything with confidence in this conference feels like a lost cause.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Despite being a fixture on the college football coaching scene since the 1990s, this is Brent Venables first head coaching job. He knows the program well, previously serving as associate head coach and defensive coordinator from 2004-2011. But, it will be interesting to see how he responds to the adversity he faced last year and how he preps for their jump to the SEC. The coordinators are Jeff Lebby on offense and Ted Roof on defense. Lebby is a Sooner alum who has been a fast riser through the coaching ranks and parlayed success with Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss into this position. Roof, on the other hand, has been a longtime journeyman throughout college football coaching. He's had stop after stop as linebacker coach or defensive coordinator throughout the Southeast, but his only head coaching experience was a frightful run at Duke, where he went 6-45. As important as Lebby is to this Oklahoma offense, the return of O-Line coach Bill Bedenbaugh may be even more crucial. Bedenbaugh has been with the Sooners since 2013 and has been the architect of some truly elite offensive fronts.

Recruiting Breakdown
The on-field product may not have been what was hoped, but Brent Venables and this staff deserve a ton of credit for their work on the recruiting trail. They went toe-to-toe with some of the sport's recruiting superpowers, finishing with the 4th-ranked group in the Class of 2023. There are a trio of five-stars that bulk up the overall quality of the group. Quarterback Jackson Arnold is the future of the program, a gunslinger from Denton, Texas. Then, there's the defenders, relentless edge rusher Adepoju Adebawore and safety Peyton Bowen. Bowen and Arnold were actually high school teammates, but Bowen's commitment came as a bit of a surprise. He was a late flip to the Sooners, after committing to both Notre Dame and Oregon beforehand. Other names to watch in this Class include 6'5", 315-pound tackle Caden Green and well-built linebacker Samuel Omosigho. Overall, this group has a much different feel than what Lincoln Riley and the previous staff were bringing in. It's clear that this new staff understands the type of athletes they're going to need to compete in the SEC and are adjusting accordingly.

2023 Schedule Analysis
Oklahoma has a very good shot to roll through their non-conference slate, which includes Arkansas State, SMU, and Tulsa. Of that trio, SMU feels like the toughest challenge to me, and the Sooners get them in Norman. After that, the Big 12 slate begins with a road trip to Cincinnati, then a tune-up against Iowa State before the Red River Showdown on October 7. You better believe this entire team will be tuned up for that one after the disastrous showing last fall. The schedule the rest of the way is manageable, although the three road games could all be tricky. Kansas is certainly no pushover, Oklahoma will travel to Stillwater for what may be the final "Bedlam" game of all-time, and then have to go to Provo to clash with BYU in mid-November. 

2023 X-Factor: Jalil Farooq, WR
With Lebby and Dillon Gabriel at the controls, Oklahoma's offense is likely to put up points no matter what. Yet, the offensive ceiling will be capped if they can't find a new group of weapons to open things up on the perimeter. There's plenty of talent on the outside, but the Sooners are lacking a true No. 1 guy that can strike fear into opposing offenses. That may end up being Michigan transfer Andrel Anthony, but the hope is that holdover Jalil Farooq can continue his development and put together a big 2023 campaign. After a quiet 2021, his first on campus, Farooq went for 466 yards on 37 receptions last season and also caught five touchdowns. With Marvin Mims gone, is he now ready for even larger things? The slippery wide out can break things open in a hurry, but developing consistency will be key. 

Team Projections
Projected Record: 8-4 (6-3 Big 12)
Offensive MVP: QB Dillon Gabriel
Defensive MVP: S Billy Bowman
Impact Freshman: S Peyton Bowen
Impact Transfer: OT Walter Rouse
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Andrel Anthony

Five-Year Trend

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