Brent Venables' Sooner honeymoon will last one season, no longer
It’s kind of perfect.
For the first time in forever, the prognosticated occupant of the Big 12’s football penthouse is not Oklahoma, but Baylor.
The only thing more perfect might have been the Sooners coming in third in the media-voted preseason poll, behind Oklahoma State.
It’s understandable why that didn’t happen. Despite last season’s Stillwater loss, the Sooners have gone 16-3 against the Pokes since 2003 and, about last season’s Stillwater loss, they should have won that one, too, but playing for a coach with his soul out the door and only his body on the sideline did them no favors.
Enter Brent Venables and what could be better than expectations being a little less, his team being a bit of a mystery and the conference being up for grabs?
Though the Sooners got most of the first-place votes the Bears did not, 12, they did not get every first-place vote the Bears did not.
OSU got nine. Texas (cough, cough), got two. Iowa State got one and, though Kansas State got none, the voters still put the Wildcats in front of the Cyclones, in the fifth spot.
It’s a good place the Sooners find themselves because it’s a good place for their coach to begin, because Venables’ honeymoon will be one season and no longer.
He doesn’t have to win the conference. He doesn’t have to win 10 games (or 11, 12, 13 or 14). He doesn’t have to reach the conference title game.
Though he yearns, plans and expects to run a program as on top of things as Alabama or, from whence he came, Clemson, his team need not look like the Tide nor the Tigers on the field just yet, nor even a less talented version thereof.
The only real and reasonable expectation that ought to be placed upon OU this coming season is improvement in all the spaces in which the program perpetually underperformed under the guidance of the alleged offensive guru Lincoln Riley.
That would mean no more hanging on to win as though losing interest in the third and fourth quarters. No more keeping vastly lesser opponents in the game or, worse, having to rally crazily with unrepeatable plays to beat, say, Kansas. Not to mention basic discipline, the kind that puts an end to dumb and unnecessary penalties.
The first tenet of so much in this world is do no harm, yet Riley’s Sooners, for all the games they won, did a great deal of harm, played so many unnecessarily close games, put themselves in so many unnecessary difficult places.
Beyond championships, what the Sooner Nation wants more than anything is to simply root for a team that’s as good as it’s supposed to be.
Yet, coming up, for one season, Venables must not even direct a team that does that, exactly. It will be enough the Sooners merely take some real steps in that direction and it’s hard to see how that doesn’t happen.
It’s hard because it’s hard to believe, given all the right notes Venables has sounded since arriving at Max Westheimer airport 217 days ago, how the culture shift he’s driving fails to show up on the field.
Also true, it will be the only season that little is required.
Sooner fans are capable of being realists, but if OU and Texas are really waiting until 2025 to enter the SEC, Sooner fans may struggle to understand how a Venables coached squad can’t at least be best in the conference it’s eventually departing in 2023 an ’24.
That, and once the move’s made, though the victory total expectation may be relaxed a bit for a bit, what won’t be relaxed are the fans’ minds’ eyes’ pictures of what OU ought to look like.
By then, those steps mentioned above will have to have reached their destinations.
Discipline, toughness, attention to detail and the things coaches mean when they say “physical” — line play, run game, tackling — must not just be getting there, but be there.
Another way to look at it, it will be demanded of Venables he put teams on the field that resemble what Bob Stoops put on the field from 2000 to ’04 rather than what Riley put on the field from 2017 to ’21.
Of course, there’s every reason to believe Venables is the right guy. He looks the part and every moment since coming back to Norman he’s sounded the part, too.
But that stuff goes out the window soon. He’s got one season to find his way. After that, he and his team must be on their way.
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