Optimism can turn to despair in a single moment. And, despair is the feeling that many Sooner fans have after the 63-28 loss to LSU in the College Football Playoffs. With a loss like that tunnel vision comes into play. Seeing through the storm is difficult when you’re in the midst of it. But, however grim it may seem, the sky is not falling in Norman.
The Sky is Not Falling in Norman
There’s no way around it. The Sooners are in the midst of a post-season slump. And, maybe a slump is putting it mildly. Since Oklahoma won the National Championship in the 2001 Orange Bowl game, there have been seven straight defeats in the championship or playoff games. With appearances in 2003, 2004, 2008, 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2019 Oklahoma has been represented more than any team other than Alabama. However, the inability to win any of these games has put a dark cloud over the program.
Perhaps, more importantly, has been the manner in which Oklahoma has lost some of these games. In four of the seven losses, the Sooners have lost by 36, 20, 11, and 35 points. This brings fuel to the fire in terms of what Oklahoma must do to rectify this. But, more on that later. However, Oklahoma has had its share of bad breaks in these games. Jason White was not healthy ahead of the 2004 National Championship game against LSU. And, Demarco Murray’s injury in the Big 12 championship game in the 2008 season. Also, there was the botched squib kick that changed the momentum against Georgia in the 2018 Rose Bowl. Finally, the suspensions and injuries ahead of this year’s Peach Bowl doomed the Sooner fate.
Whether it’s injuries, suspensions, or just bad play Oklahoma has a championship hump to get over. The fact of the matter is that the Sooners are battling against themselves, a sub-par conference, and a growing perception. Oklahoma has gained the benefit of the doubt in BCS and Playoff discussion considerations over the years. However, with the current losing streak that is likely to change.
How does Oklahoma get over the hump?
Over the last few seasons, it’s come down to the simple fact of talent. Some might not want to believe it, but LSU and Alabama have had better players than Oklahoma. That’s particularly true on the defensive side of the ball. Recruiting and player development is a key indicator of Oklahoma’s lack of success. Also, Oklahoma likely held on to Mike Stoops a year longer than they could have afforded to. The additional year likely cost Oklahoma a shot at a National Championship in 2017.
Alex Grinch has cemented himself as a guy that can right the ship. Even with the struggle in the Peach Bowl, Grinch has transformed the defense. The Sooners went from 110th in total defense to 25th in a single season. In fact, he did so with a majority of the same players as a year ago. If the Sooners can keep that defensive momentum in 2020, they will have the continuity that side of the ball desperately needs.
Defensive Player Development
Rome was not built in a day. However, if the people working on building an empire digress then it will take too many days. That’s exactly the case when it comes to the defensive talent over the past decade at Oklahoma. Players have peaked as freshmen and sophomores and digressed as juniors and seniors. Obviously, it should be the reverse.
From 2010 to 2019, you have to go all the way back to 2010 to find the last Oklahoma defensive player that was drafted in the first round of the NFL draft. That was Gerald McCoy. And, that’s a problem. In fact, Oklahoma has only produced 20 defensive players that were drafted within the first four rounds of the NFL draft. At Oklahoma, you have to compare that to the teams they are facing in the postseason. In that same timeframe, Alabama has 35. Also, LSU has 27, Ohio State has 25, Clemson has 22, and Georgia has 16. The fact of the matter is, Oklahoma is lagging behind.
Improvement in Depth
This decade quite possibly has been the worst defensive play in school history as a total. So, for a school what’s the reason for this? It’s been a combination of many factors. But, a big indicator is on the recruiting side. It was a perfect storm of poor evaluations, lack of player development, and the lack of quality recruiting.
In the mid-2010s, for whatever reason, Oklahoma got a little lazy on the recruiting trail. And, it showed on the field. Bob Stoops made some changes that allowed the recruiting to improve a bit. But, the player development or lack thereof has come back to bite the team overall.
Even with the improvement this year, it was clear that Oklahoma was not where they needed to be from a depth perspective. However, Oklahoma has made some tremendous strides in recruiting in both the 2019 and 2020 classes. The Sooners have 14 different four-star recruits in these two classes with two more possibly coming in the late period. The depth that the Sooners are attempting to build will allow them to withstand the injuries and suspensions that occurred this season.
A Fresh Start
Even with the bad taste in their mouths, Oklahoma overachieved in 2019. Most believed this team was a year away from being a playoff team with the loss at quarterback, four new offensive linemen, wide receiver, and installing a new defense. In fact, this year is probably the best collective coaching job in Riley’s tenure to get this team back to the playoffs.
Offensively, Oklahoma took a small step back this season. Riley had to tweak the offense so much to fit Jalen Hurts strengths that it set the offense back a bit. Oklahoma was still in the top 10 in most offensive categories. However, they lacked big-play ability in the vertical passing game. All signs point to the Sooners looking more like the offense of 2017 and 2018 rather than this year’s offense.
Even though Riley will build this up as a competition through Spring and Fall camps, Spencer Rattler will be the starting quarterback in 2020. Even with the loss of CeeDee Lamb, the Sooners should be better as a position group. Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease, Trejan Bridges, and Austin Stogner will all have increased roles in their sophomore seasons. And, the production of Charleston Rambo and Brayden Willis should also take another jump.
Finally, Oklahoma will be back in the conversation to begin the season. They will be no worse than sixth in the preseason rankings. Getting back to the prototypical Sooner offense will allow Oklahoma to be more dynamic in 2020. But, it will all come down to defense. Can Oklahoma make another step in 2020 in production as well as quality depth? Will the development of freshman and sophomores be evident on the field? Can the incoming freshmen on the defensive line and in the secondary add quality depth as well as fill needed holes. Those questions remain to be answered, but the future does indeed look bright for the Sooners. However, for many reasons, should the Sooners find themselves back in the playoffs a win is a must for a program that needs to regain national respect.