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2023 Season Preview and Predictions

Our season outlook and predictions for the second year under Brent Venables, a year that promises to be successful.

The 2023 version of the Oklahoma Sooners kicks off later this morning when the Arkansas State Red Wolves, led by one-time SEC head coach Butch Jones, visit Norman opening weekend.

Everything really boils down to one topic: the 2023 version better be a lot better than the 2022 version. Or Oklahoma might be in trouble. When you get to our staff predictions here in a minute, you’ll see that we’re all buying this version.

If you have missed our position-by-position breakdowns, these may add some context as to why we are seeing a turnaround for the Sooners their second year under head coach Brent Venables:

Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End | Offensive Line | Defensive Line | Linebackers | Defensive Backs

There is a belief for massive improvement in two important areas – receiver play, and pass rush. Say what you will about Pro Football Focus from a game-to-game perspective, it’s a good resource to use when spotting trends across a full season. We’ll be providing a lot of weekly insight this season using PFF, but it won’t be the basis of our analysis. Sometimes it offers some good perspective, like when looking at the ratings of pass receiving and pass rush:

Not many categories had consistency throughout the season, other than run blocking (only one week under 70, and many 75 or higher). Pass rush could be considered consistent, but not for the right reasons. And receivers only had two good games (Nebraska and Texas Tech), and a lot of poor games.

If you share a similar opinion to some of us at 360, you may realize that Dillon Gabriel doesn’t quite elevate the play of his teammates around him. Gabriel is more than a serviceable quarterback; he has logged a lot of snaps in his career so far and knows the offense. But there are also some limitations to his game that frankly may be difficult to overcome at this stage in his career. Gabriel struggled at times in 2022, especially on third down, and wasn’t a difference maker down the stretch in one score games. Compare Gabriel to Heisman finalist Max Duggan, who led TCU on a remarkable run to the 2022 title game with his gritty play:

PLAYERQBR 1st DownQBR 2nd DownQBR 3rd Down (4-6 to go)QBR 3rd Down (7-9 to go)
Max Duggan171163152163
Dillon Gabriel1661748376

With drives on the line, Max Duggan’s clutch abilities helped extend drives, keep the defense off the field, and win close games. Conversely, Gabriel really struggled, and this glaring difference on 3rd downs was a huge factor in the five losses in one score games. Whether Gabriel can improve on 3rd down in his 5th season on a college campus is a huge question mark that could influence the final result of the season, and maybe even Gabriel’s ability to finish the season.

And things would not look much better in the passing game this time around if the receiver group can’t play with more consistency. Enter Emmett Jones and a suite of fast new toys. While guys like Andrel Anthony, Jr., Jaquaize Pettaway, Gavin Freeman, and a healthy Nic Anderson, Gabriel won’t become Joe Burrow, but he will have enough at his disposal to make more plays when it counts. Those kind of plays could have swung one (or a few) of those five one-score losses a season ago.

On the opposite side of the ball, the Sooners defense consistently struggled to finish drives and get off the field. They logged a staggering 1,070 defensive snaps in 2022, with guys like Danny Stutsman and David Ugwoegbu playing over 900 snaps each. Part of the blame for their struggles falls at the feet of the defensive ends, a group that struggled mightily to get after the quarterback. The defensive tackles inside were better as a unit, but there was a lack of big plays when it mattered. The coaches tried mixing up looks throughout the year, leaning on both the 30 and 40 fronts for long stretches. But the pass rush could never get going. To help, Venables, Todd Bates, and Miguel Chavis went out and hit the portal, hoping the experience of incoming transfers Rondell Bothroyd, Trace Ford, and Da’Jon Terry could help elevate the play of the defensive line both inside and on the edge. Adding a five-star pass rusher in PJ Adebawore and another 20 pounds on promising second year player R Mason Thomas can’t hurt either.

If these two things come to fruition, suddenly this schedule, which already didn’t look daunting without Baylor and Kansas State, provides a legitimate platform for a return to the playoffs.

After a dreadful 6-7 season in year one under Brent, a lot of people could not have been thinking playoffs. Not yet at least. At the conclusion of the season, some weren’t just asking if he’d turn it around. They were asking if he even deserved a chance. He was always getting a chance, and barring a catastrophe this fall, he’ll have yet another in 2024. But he didn’t just sit idle, getting out in the portal and attracting more than just a handful of impact players that should make a big difference on the field in 2023. The horses weren’t there last year, and they may not all be thoroughbreds just yet, but there’s enough talent and experience at key positions to win in this conference now.

Just one look through the schedule shows the path to the final four may be as easy for Oklahoma as it has been since that first playoff appearance against Clemson.

With no Baylor and no Kansas State – probably the two teams that have played Oklahoma the toughest in the last decade – Texas looks like the only truly competitive opponent on paper, assuming this team can play anything close to its potential. Swapping out the Bears and Wildcats for a Cincinnati team gutted in the portal and under new leadership and a Central Florida program that has regressed since its marquee season in 2017 is a big win for Dillon Gabriel and the Sooners. Texas Tech is another team that falls off the list, and while OU doesn’t get a chance to avenge the loss in Lubbock, they’ll instead face a BYU squad that will be on the heals of a stretch that includes TCU on the road, Texas Tech at home, at Texas, at West Virginia, and then a gritty Iowa State at home. For a program that plays roughly five Power 5 schools a year, it will be a tough stretch. OU gets TCU at home, and for the incredible year they had last year, metrics show they should come back down to earth, especially now that Max Duggan is gone. In the rest of the games, OU could be double digit favorites over every opponent.

It’s a very winnable schedule, one that Brent Venables must take advantage of. His program might depend on it.

Staff Predictions

Matt Burns

Arkansas State – W
SMU – W
@ Tulsa – W
@ Cincinnati – W
Iowa State – W
v Texas – L
UCF – W
@ Kansas – W
@ Oklahoma State – W
West Virginia – W
@ BYU – W
TCU – W

11-1

Big 12 Championship: W vs Kansas State
Rose Bowl: 4th Seed vs 1 Seed Ohio State – L
Final Ranking: 4th

Kyle Dahlgren

Arkansas State – W
SMU – W
@ Tulsa – W
@ Cincinnati – W
Iowa State – W
v Texas – L
UCF – W
@ Kansas – W
@ Oklahoma State – W
West Virginia – W
@ BYU – W
TCU – L

10-2

Big 12 Championship: W vs KSU
Fiesta/Peach/Cotton Bowl (at large bid): Fiesta Bowl vs. Oregon – L, finish 11-3
Final Ranking: 9th

Season Outlook: If Dmack wants to start calling me Data Kyle, then I guess I can’t make any predictions without using the data. Simply put, OU will be favored in every game except one this season, but we know that OU went 4-8 against the spread in 2022, including an abysmal 2-7 in conference play… so much for using that reasoning. BUT, this team is not last year’s team. As much as we’ve heard BV hint at some of it, if you could give him a dose of truth serum I’m betting he would tell you how shocked he was to get under the lights and see a bunch of ex-blue chip recruits wilt at big moments, especially on the defensive side. An entire culture shift was needed, including bringing in a hungry and talented recruiting class, as well as a bevy of transfer portal supplements to rid the room of any leftover mental notes from the Alex Grinch & Bennie Wylie era. The Big 12 could have scolded OU on the way out similar to Texas, but alas they give us arguably the second easiest schedule in the entire league, missing KSU, Tech, and Baylor. While the math says to predict 11-1, I’m not there yet with this staff or roster. Show me you can put lesser teams away, and I’ll pick it with regularity. As such, you have to find at least one more loss outside of Dallas, and I’m going with TCU on a sleepy 11 am matchup the Friday after everyone has stuffed themselves full of turkey. A lethargic crowd with kids traveling home for the holiday leaves this team ripe for the upset by the CFP runner-up of 2022. Beyond that I think we face the Wildcats one last time before the exit, and are able to sneak out a win thanks to better skill talent. With the Sugar tied into the playoffs, any of the at-large spots can take OU and leave an entire plethora of matchups. Just for fun I’ll say it’s the Fiesta vs. Oregon, and we get the BV/Lanning matchup that Joe C. wrestled with during the hiring process.

Chris Mason

Arkansas State – W
SMU – W
@ Tulsa – W
@ Cincinnati – W
Iowa State – W
v Texas – L
UCF – W
@ Kansas – W
@ Oklahoma State – W
West Virginia – W
@ BYU – W
TCU – W

11-1

Big 12 Championship: W vs Texas
Rose Bowl: 3rd Seed vs 2nd Seed Michigan – L
Final Ranking: 3rd

Season Outlook: I think OU cruises into Dallas 5-0 due to some big openings from the OL group leading to a strong early running game. Strong debuts at WR from Anthony and Anderson amp up the big play passing game. Defensively, the improved depth overall and pass rush make a big difference in putting away games in the 4th QTR. Defensively, we see more and more of PJ and Peyton providing big plays and impact. OU finds an effective way to get Harrington and Dasan on the field together in some 3-3-5 looks in the second half stretch run. Texas game number one is a nail biting close loss. Texas game number two OU forces some turnovers to take control in the second half.

Caleb Cummings

Arkansas State – W
SMU – W
@ Tulsa – W
@ Cincinnati – W
Iowa State – W
v Texas – W
UCF – W
@ Kansas – W
@ Oklahoma State – W
West Virginia – W
@ BYU – L
TCU – W

11-1

Big 12 Championship vs Oklahoma State – W
CFP semifinal loss to Georgia
12-2, Big 12 Champs, final ranking 5th.

Season Outlook: I admittedly feel a bit like a home writing the above prediction, particularly with OU coming off a 6-7 season in Brent Venables inaugural season in Norman. But, I am all in on Brent Venables and his vision for the OU program. The reality of the 2022 season is that Lincoln Riley had left a hollowed out program in Norman. It was a program that lacked a culture of hard work and accountability, and instead mirrored Riley’s “image over substance” persona. Recruiting misses and abysmal player development were masked by generational quarterback play and Riley’s elite play calling. The defense that Ted Roof and company inherited had far deeper issues than simply a talent exodus as 5 OU defenders were selected in the 2022 NFL draft. After 3 yeas in an Alex Grinch scheme that emphasized various stunts and slants upfront in an effort to play the odds game of negative plays negating explosive plays by the offense, Oklahoma was left with not only a defensive unit that lacked talent and playmakers, but one that had no experience with the basic fundamentals of the game.

Venables has quietly done a fantastic job of addressing the roster issues, both in terms of talent as well as overall depth, via high school recruiting and the transfer portal. And as his 2023 Oklahoma enters year two they will likely find themselves the deeper and more talented team than every opponent they face, with the notable exception of Texas.

I am betting on Brent Venables and the principle of compounding interest in 2023. The longer the timeline, the more his consistent never changing approach and work ethic will take hold and begin to create separation from competition.

Barry Wise

Arkansas State -W
SMU – W
@ Tulsa – W
@ Cincinnati – W
Iowa State – L
v Texas – L
UCF – W
@ Kansas – W
@ Oklahoma State – W
West Virginia – W
@ BYU – W
TCU – W

Final Ranking 10th

Season Outlook: I will probably get a little grief from the fans but after really digging into the schedule and numbers, I am forced to reconsider my 9-3 prediction. I simply do not see three losses on the schedule. However, I do see two and I see them taking place early. Last season, OU struggled in clutch situations and I believe it shows up again early in the season before the Sooners make the switch at QB. The run game takes off, the passing game improves slightly, and the Oklahoma Sooners find themselves becoming a team that looks more suited for SEC play in 2024.  

The defensive improvements that fans have hoped for finally take hold as OU squeaks out at least two games with a dominant performance on that side of the ball as a true freshman leads the team at quarterback.  

Oklahoma finishes the final stretch of their schedule by running the table and earning a trip to the final Big 12 Championship game. The Sooners continue their dominance in that game with a victory over Texas, avenging the early season loss.

The Sooners just miss out on the playoff due to their two losses but still find themselves in a New York Six bowl game, where that third loss takes place against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. This game sets the tone for what is to come for OU in their next chapter as a program.

Photo courtesy of Brian Bahr/Getty Images

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