With OU football set for last dance in Big 12, how can Sooners head to SEC on high note?

The Oklahoman
NORMAN — There’ll be time for reminiscence.
Time for looking back on past accomplishments and appreciating OU’s success in the Big 12.
But as the Sooners close in on the beginning of their final season in the conference they’ve dominated for much of the league’s nearly three-decade history, OU’s focus is on what lies immediately ahead of them.
“I’m a ‘be here now’ kind of guy,” Sooners coach Brent Venables said. “Bill Snyder said, ‘Be here now. Bloom where you’re planted. Bloom where your feet are.’ We have a lot of improvement to do. I don’t have time to be nostalgic of being in the conference for the last time. The most important things are improving our football team, becoming a team that can compete for championships and the development process and what it’s going to take to do that.
“The expectations (are) we should be able to do that this year, compete for a championship. That’s our expectations. It may not be everybody else’s but that’s ours.”
But after going 6-7 last season, their first losing season since 1998, the Sooners have plenty of improvements to make to leave the Big 12 with a bang.
In their final season in the Big 12, coach Brent Venables (center) and the OU football team must improve in several critical areas to avoid a repeat of disappointing 2022.
“Oklahoma is not entitled to win,” Venables said. “They don’t have this monopoly on winning. This is what it takes to be successful. It’s not, ‘Well, Oklahoma…’ This is the expectation. This is what it takes to be successful. This is the game plan. This is what’s required. These are the ingredients.”
The biggest key for success for the Sooners is defensive improvement.
OU was No. 122 nationally in total defense last season, allowing 461 yards per game. Only nine Division I programs allowed more yards per game than the Sooners.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Venables said. “A lot. But our guys are putting the work in and we’ll be there if they keep their head down and us as a staff continue to be honest with ourselves and find ways to constantly get better. We’ve got to have humility and the right kind of vision.”
The Sooners remade all three levels of their defense in the offseason, none more so than the line where they brought in a handful of transfers. The most notable additions were Rondell Bothroyd of Wake Forest, Trace Ford of Oklahoma State, Da’Jon Terry of Tennessee and Jacob Lacey from Notre Dame.
“Most of the games that we lost were in the fourth quarter,” defensive lineman Jonah Laulu said. “When you think about it, getting these new transfers added that competitive stamina because now we have more experienced players and people that know what they’re doing and play to the best of their ability and elevate the whole defense. That was the whole purpose of bringing in all these new people, so the whole team rises together.”
OU quarterback Dillon Gabriel (8) leaps over Florida State linebacker Tatum Bethune to score a touchdown in the Cheez-It Bowl.
After being near the top nationally in tackles for loss and sacks after non-conference play ended, the Sooners struggled to be disruptive in that way during Big 12 play — finishing last in the league with 13 sacks in Big 12 play.
The biggest buzz phrase surrounding the summer has been “competitive depth,” and not just on defense.
Offensively, the Sooners’ lack of quarterback depth was exposed last season when Dillon Gabriel went down with an injury. The Sooners should be better-equipped to handle such an injury this season with five-star prospect Jackson Arnold backing up Gabriel.
That applies to the offensive line, wide receivers and to other spots as well.
“I think walking out here on the grass, you can just see the bodies,” offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby said. “And another year with Schmitty (strength coach Jerry Schmidt) and recruiting and being Year Two, I think you can tell that we look, just walking on the field, we look better than we did a year ago today, which is helpful.”
OU must also get better situationally.
The Sooners’ defense was No. 88 nationally in third-down conversion percentage. OU’s offense was better, coming in at No. 49 nationally, but there were several key moments during the Sooners’ five losses by seven points or less where they couldn’t come up with a big play at an opportune time.
“There has been real growth,” Lebby said of situational success. “Timing has been real good with wide receivers, with that entire group, things like that. We’re in a good spot.”
Whether it’s their last year in the Big 12, their first year in the SEC or something else, Venables wants more.
“At Oklahoma, the program is all about us,” Venables said. “We stand on our own two feet as a program and we’re focused on how we can be our best, how we can improve and get better in the areas that we have to improve and get better at. That’s what it’s all about — building it the right way, regardless of what conference we’re in. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

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