Oklahoma has been a weird story since hiring former Clemson DC Brent Venables after Lincoln Riley jumped ship following the 2021 season. The Sooners had been in or around contention for the College Football Playoff more often than not in recent years, only to find themselves with a losing record of 6-7 in Venables’ first season as a head coach. Venables, a former Garden City CC and Kansas State linebacker, had built up a huge reputation as a recruiter and defensive mind at Clemson, and while he was seemingly always rumored to be targeted for head coaching jobs at impressive programs, he never surfaced as a finalist. Entering the 2022 season, he finally took the plunge and took the helm of an Oklahoma program preparing for a 2024 jump to the SEC. Riley took a lot of talent with him to USC, and while it was Venables’ first season, Oklahoma knows firsthand how quickly a great program can drop off the map under poor leadership, and many of the Sooner faithful at least had some doubts creeping in as OU turned in a very mediocre season in year one.
However, this preview isn’t about year one. It’s about a year two that’s off to a very different start. By this time last year, the Sooners were 4-3, including back-to-back losses to TCU and Texas by a combined 84 points. They were also coming off a 52-42 shootout win over Kansas that probably looked a bit closer than it really was in the 4th quarter. This year is a much different story. Not only is Oklahoma 7-0, but they’ve already notched a huge win over previously-unbeaten and top 5 ranked rival Texas. Their other six opponents (Arkansas State, SMU, Tulsa, Cincinnati, Iowa State, and UCF) have not made for a strong early schedule. Cincinnati may be the worst team in the Big 12, and Iowa State and UCF are middle of the pack at best. However, great teams destroy outgunned competition, and you can’t ask for more than what OU has done to that competition so far, winning their non-Texas games by a combined score of 268-83 (roughly an average 44-14 margin). Those blowout wins, combined with a victory of a Texas team that already took down Alabama, has Oklahoma highly rated by humans and computers alike. OU comes in ranked 6th in the AP poll, and ESPN/Bill Connelly’s sp+ ratings place them 9th, with the 5th ranked offense and 23rd ranked defense in the country.
The 5th ranked offense is only a bit of a surprise. Despite their 6-7 record last year, they averaged very close to the same yards per play as they have this year. They had their off weeks, but they put up some gaudy point totals, even in losses and close games. Then-junior QB Dillon Gabriel, still the team’s signal caller this year, threw for over 3,000 yards and 25 TDs, while rushing for 6 TDs with over 200 yards on the ground, even with sacks factored in. Their leading rusher, Eric Gray with over 1,300 yards, is gone, but their RB-by-committee approach is mostly fine, with Marcus Major and Taiwee Walker combining for 547 yards and 5 TDs. They pass nearly as much as they run, and they’re better when they do it, too. While their rushing attack averages a paltry 4.09 yards/play, which would seemingly play into KU’s newfound ability to (mostly) slow teams down on the ground, their passing game behind now-senior Gabriel (who transferred from UCF, now a conference foe, after losing his starting job in 2021) has been outstanding. Gabriel averages 9.1 yard/attempt, with over 2,100 yards and 19 TDs with only three picks. Their freshman backup, Jackson Arnold, has been dominant in mop-up duty as well, completing all but 2 of his 15 pass attempts for over 11 yards per throw. The Oklahoma receiving corps doesn’t have any one elite receiver standing above the rest, but they have a deep receiver room full of guys who can do some damage. Senior WR Drake Stoops leads the team in receptions with 36, freshman Nic Anderson averages an insane 24.2 yards/catch with 8 TDs(!) already. The team leader in yardage is junior Jalil Farooq with 438 yards on over 19 yards per catch. The Kansas secondary will need to be totally fresh coming off the bye week, because Oklahoma will spread these weapons all over the field and dare defenses to cover all of them. So far, no opponent has done it especially well, even a Texas defense that shut down Alabama. Pressuring Gabriel (without letting him scramble for 20 yards at a time, ideally), will be incredibly important as the KU secondary, though talented, is going to have a tough time adequately covering all those weapons for more than just a few seconds at a time.
With Venables being a defensive-minded coach, there were a lot of predictions that the Sooners would get away from the Riley model of loading up on offensive talent and burying teams with explosive plays and just relying on bend-but-don’t-break defense. Though the offense remains the biggest key to their success, the defense has undoubtedly improved from the Riley years. Again, sp+ says they’re a top 25 defense. They’re going to make life difficult for KU’s 1 - 2 punch of Devin Neal and Daniel Hishaw at RB, as they’ve allowed a smothering 3.35 yards per carry to opponents so far. Opposing QBs have completed under 59% of their throws while handing the Sooners 8 interceptions already this year, with OU generating 17 sacks. As a whole, Oklahoma allows just 5.09 yards/play to opponents this year, which is troublesome news for a Kansas team that, like last year, once again appears to be relying on high-scoring shootout victories when they play tough competition. Junior DE Ethan Downs will be a focal point for the offensive line, leading Oklahoma with 4.5 sacks while ranking 2nd in TFLs with 6. The team leader in TFLs is LB Danny Stutsman, who’s racked up a whopping 11.5 in 6 games played. To make things even scarier, Oklahoma is 2nd in FBS football with 12 team picks, and have four players who’ve picked off multiple passes. Whether you’re watching film or just evaluating them on paper, this Oklahoma defense simply doesn’t have glaring weakness on either side of the ball, and there’s no clear aspect of the game where KU has a definitive advantage.
If you’ve read my previews over the years, you’ve likely noticed two things: they’re rarely done on time, and my predictions have a strong tendency to fall on the pessimistic side. However, if you routinely read the comments on RCT, you might have noticed me dropping VERY SUBTLE HINTS that I think Kansas could shock the college football world in this one. Of course I could easily put together a convincing rationale for why KU has little chance of competing in this game, but this week feels a little different.
Admittedly, I first decided Oklahoma could be a winnable game early this year, when all they had done was blow out a few bad teams (or more specifically, blown out two bad teams and turned in a lackluster performance against a mediocre one in SMU). I didn’t think Venables was a good hire as a head coach given his reluctance to even pursue head coaching opportunities over the years despite interest from some fairly prominent programs. I thought he would take Oklahoma back to the days of filling their roster with highly rated recruits but failing to make a great team out of them. I felt vindicated in that belief after last year’s struggles, but suddenly there’s more and more evidence that the Sooners’ new coaching staff just needed one transition year and are now up and running.
Despite everything I’ve said so far in writing this, I do believe Kansas has a real shot in this one. After Oklahoma’s big win over Texas, they looked listless against a mediocre UCF team last week, needing a 4th quarter comeback and late 2 point conversion stop to avoid defeat. It’s easy to write that off as being a trap game, playing an outmatched but respectable opponent while still reveling in the good vibes from the Texas win. While the Texas game is now two weeks in the rearview mirror, another lackluster performance is entirely possible. Kansas is no longer a team where opponents just sort of show up expecting to win. However, Memorial Stadium (I will not call it The Booth) will feature a sold out crowd, despite a brutal weather forecast for October. Kickoff temps won’t be much higher than 40 degrees, and there’s a solid chance of rain throughout the day. This is also an 11am kickoff. Cold, dreary weather and an early start time may make this game a tough one for an opponent to come out fired up. Also, while the Sooners are scary on both sides of the ball, this seems like a game where it may take some time for the teams to gain their footing. If Kansas can get a few early stops, and Andy Kotelnicki designs a strong gameplan, KU could jump out to an early lead, and see what happens from there.
Oklahoma has played two straight close games they could have easily lost, including one to a UCF team that the Jayhawks really dismantled in Lawrence. Overall they’re a dominant team, but they’ve faced some late-game adversity on their way to this 7-0 start. Combine that with a cold, rainy, morning kickoff and Oklahoma could find themselves on upset watch. I think Kotelnicki will once again devise a gameplan that puts QB2 Jason Bean in position to succeed, and will find a way to keep OU honest by spreading the field out horizontally and getting a few big runs in space against a stout Oklahoma front seven. It’s not going to be easy, and even a blowout loss is certainly on the table, but I think OU may just come crashing down to earth on Saturday in front of a sellout Homecoming crowd. On paper it’s highly improbable, but regardless...
Kansas will beat Oklahoma.
Kansas 41, Oklahoma 35