The first post-Lincoln Riley season at Oklahoma couldn’t have gone worse

Sooners finished the regular season 6-6 and need a bowl win to avoid first sub-.500 season since 1998

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Brent Venables
Brent Venables
Photo: Getty Images

While Ohio State fans hold the most recent grudge against Lincoln Riley, Caleb Williams, and USC, the fanbase that’s still the most upset about the Trojans’ success this year resides in Norman. Williams was supposed to be the third Heisman winner in crimson and cream under Riley, and it’s OU that should be a conference title away from a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Instead of a fourth trip to the playoff, Oklahoma is 6-6 and will be playing in a nondescript postseason game. Right now, predictions have them slated for the Guaranteed Rate Bowl against Wisconsin. If they can’t top the Badgers, it will be the Sooners first losing season since 1998, when John Blake oversaw a 5-6 campaign, was fired, and replaced by Bob Stoops.

First-year coach Brent Venables, the longtime defensive coordinator at Clemson, wasn’t left with an empty cupboard, and even though some players, including Williams, followed Riley to Southern California, it shouldn’t have been this bad.

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The only things Venables really had to fix was the quarterback position and the defense, but fans really would’ve been understanding if he went one for two, with the team improving on the side of the ball that’s allegedly the strength of its new coach.

Not only did the defense not improve, but it got worse. The Sooners were 100th in college football in points allowed, 109th in rushing defense, and 107th in pass defense. They lost three of their past four games to unranked teams. During a three-week span from late September to early October, the Sooners were outscored 145-58. Granted two of those teams are vying for the Big 12 title and the other one is Texas, it’s still alarming to read.

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The last time an OU team got drubbed that badly for three straight weeks was a stretch in 1997 when they lost to Nebraska, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M by a combined score of 156-21. If you’re an Oklahoma fan (and you’re still reading this), you’re probably wondering who the fuck is this guy and what’s his point.

Other than highlighting the lowlights of a really shitty season — the only other program to concede 50-plus points to Texas Tech this year was Murray State — I’m saying life comes at you fast, and Venables has to right this soon or OU is at risk of hopping aboard a coaching carousel that’s kind to very few schools no matter how prestigious.

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After the loss to the Red Raiders, OU leading receiver and team leader Marvin Mims didn’t quite openly reject his new head coach’s tweaks to the program, but he did say he had trouble getting used to the cultural changes.

“The biggest thing about him, it’s just — I wouldn’t call it a culture shock. But, you know, he brought a lot of things that players have to get adjusted to, especially Coach Schmitty (strength coach Jerry Schmidt) coming back. I mean, there’s no, you know, teeter-tottering on the line and stuff like that. You got to do the things he wants you to do the ways he wants you to do them. Basically, that’s the biggest thing, is just getting adjusted to that.”

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It’s not fair to yell “You had one job” at Venables, considering how tremendously difficult it is to successfully coach college football in the era of transfer portals and NIL deals. Expecting a guy who’s never been a head coach to do what Riley or Ryan Day did when they inherited all the players and resources of their extremely successful predecessors was always too much. It’s like assuming Dillon Gabriel would step in for Williams and win nine or 10 games. OK, it’s not quite that, but you get what I’m saying.

While Oklahoma lived in the top 10 in recruiting rankings under Riley, it was really what the coach got out of his quarterbacks that set OU apart from other perennial powerhouses. No Riley-led Oklahoma team finished higher than 29th in average points allowed, and more often than not that number was in 60s.

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For whatever reason, the Sooners couldn’t get the overpowering athletes that Alabama, Clemson, LSU, and Georgia churn out. If that’s what Venables needs to get his defense on par with the Tigers units that destroyed ACC gameplans for years, it might take a couple of years to remake the identity of the team.

Don’t laugh too hard, Texas fans. You also have a lot to figure out before jumping into the deep end and swimming with SEC teams week after week.These two programs need to be operating near the peak of their potential when they make the move down South, or they’re going to have a hard time maintaining — or, in UT’s case, getting back to — that lofty status quo.

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There’s not much more that could’ve gone wrong in Norman since Riley and Williams bounced, but if the duo gets back to the CFP and adds the only individual hardware that matters, it’ll be like twisting the knife, throwing salt in the wound, and kicking a fans while they’re down all rolled into one.