Bowl games are to be won, but not like they used to be … which is entirely too bad.
All the way back on Dec. 7, Oklahoma football coach Brent Venables and his Arizona counterpart, Jedd Fisch, participated in the original Alamo Bowl press conference.
Yes, the game was always set for 8:15 p.m. Thursday, live from the Alamodome, in Texas’ finest city, ask any sportswriter who went to college there, but the folks who put on the game were getting right to work.
The whole idea, of course, was to get the public relations train moving for what may be the best of the non-New Year’s Six bowls, and certainly this season.
The Sooners (10-2) are trying to get to 11 wins and the Wildcats (9-3) are not just trying to get to 10 for just the third time since ’98, but they’re trying to do it by winning their last seven games of the season, five against ranked teams: Washington State, Oregon State, UCLA, Utah and OU.
Most of what that press conference was good for, however, especially where the Sooners were concerned, had nothing to do with the game, and what little of it did would have been unrecognizable in a similarly timed presser only 10 years ago and perhaps just five.
If you no longer recognize college football as something familiar, you’re officially excused and forgiven.
Mostly, we learned there was still no decision whether or not Dillon Gabriel, though he’d already announced entry into the transfer portal, would stay in Norman long enough to be part of the team in San Antonio.
Also, said Venables, the whole idea for Gabriel had been to play this season at OU before entering the NFL draft.
Perhaps, soon announced to be heading to Oregon, he received a better offer.
Also, though Danny Stutsman had reportedly told the staff he was on his way into the draft, Venables didn’t want to touch it before Stutsman proclaimed it publicly; soon after which the Sooner linebacker and defensive leader announced, guess what, he was staying.
Still, looking over what Venables and Fisch had to say, how’s this for, in an historical context, stunning?
“For us,” Venables said, “building our program the right way, everything matters, and this is another opportunity for us to improve.
“We’ll have the opportunity to play several guys, maybe making their first starts of the season in this game, and to show our competitive depth.
“Not to only finish the season the right way against another quality opponent, but also moving and transitioning into he SEC, an opportunity for us to prepare and build our program.”
As for the “everything matters” comment, that’s Venables trying to convince fans, in an age of their plunging gravity, bowl games still matter, at least to OU.
You know who never had to say that over 18 seasons.
Bob Stoops, that’s who.
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The Sooners were 8-4 in 2009, having lost the Fiesta to Boise State, the Fiesta to West Virginia and the BCS title game to Florida their previous three bowl appearances.
OU had lost quarterback Sam Bradford, tight end Jermaine Gresham and four games beginning opening day against BYU in Arlington, and you know what the fans wanted more than anything?
To beat Stanford at the Sun Bowl, something the Sooners just did, 31-27.
One year later, against a Connecticut team woefully out of place at yet another Fiesta Bowl, the fans wanted to win just as badly because they wanted to win a big bowl game again.
It was the same thing in 2016, Stoops’ final season when, after two straight bowl losses, one in the playoff, beating Auburn at the Sugar Bowl felt like everything.
Now, not only is Venables pleading the game matters, but the evidence he has that it matters is a bunch of guys not used to significant playing time will be playing and some may be starting.
It’s about the future?
It used to be about finishing high in the polls.
OU’s No. 12 in the CFP rankings, the AP poll and the coaches’ poll, and a victory might land it in the top 10. Not long ago, almost entirely, that would have been the plot line.
You have to love Venables’ attitude.
“I don’t know if it makes things difficult,” he said that day about player retention in the age of the portal, securing a recruiting class and preparing for a bowl game, too. “I think it gives guys opportunity. It’s just college football. You can’t keep guys forever …
“Sometimes people on the outside look at change as a bad thing and I look at it just as opportunity.”
In the pyramid category of “questions you’d never hear during a pre-bowl press conference only four, five or six years ago,” a query about player retention’s definitely one of them.”
Were I the Sooner fan of my youth, not the curmudgeonly columnist of my present, I’d want to see three things from OU Thursday night.
1). A huge game game from Drake Stoops because he so deserves it.
2). A strong game from the defense because the Sooners will need more of it where they’re going.
3). A positive game from Jackson Arnold, because he’ll be the most important guy on the roster beginning next season.
Yet, more than any of those things, not even close, I’d want a victory, because it’s not about next season, but right now, because it should always be about right now.
Only it’s not.