The Alabama Crimson Tide and Georgia Bulldogs didn’t quite play a classic in their National Championship rematch in Indianapolis last week, but the two SEC powerhouses entertained the crowds nonetheless. After receiving shellacing from the Tide in the SEC title game last month, UGA retaliated in a 33-18 victory that took home the program’s first national crown in 40 years. The win positioned Kirby Smart’s program as the latest – and arguably greatest – threat to the dynasty his mentor Nick Saban has built in Tuscaloosa.
The matchup also crystallized out for the Oklahoma Sooners what awaits them if they move to the SEC. No one should confuse those versions of the Tide and Bulldogs with great teams of all time, but they have a fair claim to the two best grids to one day take to the field together in college football history. Neither program slows down either.
It spoke to the skewed talent distribution in college football to get two SEC teams back playing for the national title. More importantly for OU, the make-up of those two teams showed what it takes to compete for supremacy at the conference — and by extension, nationally — in the coming years.
Seeing the OU’s situation through that lens makes it easy to somehow exaggerate the program’s proximity to an Alabama or a Georgia. As the 2017 season ended for the Sooners with a double overtime loss to UGA in the College Football Playoff, the Sooners appeared to be climbing into Lincoln Riley’s first year as head coach of the OU. Five years later, an OU team supposedly poised to compete for a national title couldn’t touch the national elites. While an 11-2 record is far from a disaster, OU finished 17th in the SP+ in 2021. It represented the team’s worst finish since 2014.
So what will it take for OU to get off the ground under new head coach Brent Venables if the Sooners move to the SEC?
The easy answer is to improve recruitment. As mentioned before, OU is entering a competition in which two of its 16 members managed to amass historically great rosters in the same season. Saban and Smart make it their mission to build top talent at every position on the field, and they succeed. Meanwhile, future conference foe LSU joined UGA and Bama in the top five of 247Sports’ 2021 College Football Team Talent Composite. Oh, Texas A&M is also in the process of raking in the nation’s top recruiting class this year.
On the other hand, OU is already recruiting well. Riley and his staff built the nation’s sixth-strongest roster in ’21, according to the 247 Composite. Even after Riley left for USC at the end of the season, OU still holds the No. 10 recruiting class in the country this year.
In reality, the odds are extremely high that the Sooners will someday reach a point where they routinely put together Tide-esque rosters. However, the program still has room to grow before it hits its recruiting ceiling. Putting that SEC patch on the Sooners jerseys eliminates one of the biggest headwinds OU has encountered on the trail.
It seems reasonable to believe that OU can turn its top 15 recruiting classes into top 10s and top 10 classes into top fives often enough to improve its roster from top to bottom.
Importantly, where Venables and his associates add studs through recruiting can be more important than how much they add.
OU’s recent matchups in the College Football Playoff against the top SEC teams revealed material holes in the trenches. In particular, the inability of the Sooners’ defenses to hold their own on the point of attack put the games against Bama in 2018 and LSU in 2019 out of reach before they even started. The Tide and Tigers proved from the jump that they could intimidate the OU’s defensive front at will.
Frankly, the fact that the OU’s defenses were outmatched in those matchups shouldn’t surprise anyone who followed the program. SEC teams had been showing off their advantages along the defensive front for years, and that helped keep the Sooners out of the living rooms of elite DL recruits for more than a decade.
In its 10 classes from 2013 to 2022, OU landed a total of 46 defensive linemen. They include 20 blue chip prospects. In that same time frame, Bama has only signed 44 blue-chip DLs, while UGA has landed 33.
Needless to say, the Sooners should start signing more high-quality DLs; however, everyone in the coaching offices has known this for years. The good news is that by joining the SEC, they can overcome the biggest hurdle. Not to mention, Venables added the best DL coach in the country to his staff in former Clemson colleague Todd Bates.
Not too long ago, you could count on OU coach Bill Bedenbaugh to have one of the best units in the country every year. But if poor play on the defensive line was to be expected, the erosion on the attacking side of the ball has been an unwelcome surprise lately. With all those monsters manning spots on SEC DLs, OU needs Bedenbaugh to find his groove again – and do it fast.
Unfortunately, the problems with the OL do not lend themselves to a simple solution. Bedenbaugh’s recruit hasn’t reached warp speed; it hasn’t fallen off lately either. He missed some big fish in past classes, but the Sooners also drew their typical numbers of higher prospects.
The bigger problem seems to be in the way the program develops players, rather than the potential of the players who participate in the program. Some players, such as Tramonda Moore and Stacey Wilkins, left the program without ever really contributing on the field. Of greater concern: the ones that just don’t seem to be moving forward.
Take Anton Harrison for example. The Washington, DC native received praise from the coaching staff for his potential almost as soon as the first practice sessions of the 2020 season began. During games, however, you could rarely rate its performance as better than just adequate.
Other desirable prospects aren’t even as advanced as Harrison. Players like Aaryn Parks and Marcus Alexander? There doesn’t seem to be any rush to get them on the field. The lack of maturation has forced Bedenbaugh to supplement the OL with transfers such as RJ Proctor of Virginia and ex-UCLA Bruin Chris Murray. That way, relying on too many short-term rentals for immediate help sounds like begging for trouble.
In all fairness, the Sooners generally possessed a talent advantage large enough in the Big 12 to win big by occasionally setting up strong units on either side of the line of scrimmage. Lines that could compare to those of other elite teams across the country essentially became a luxury.
However, much like elite quarterback play, OU should start thinking about strength in the trenches as a necessary condition for success. Anything less won’t fly when the Sooners move into their new home in the SEC.