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The Oklahoma Sooners head into the 2022 season in an unfamiliar spot in the Big 12 hierarchy. They aren’t the preseason favorite to win the conference. They’re a bit underrated as well, with zero selections to the preseason All-Big 12 team.
The preseason expectations won’t mean anything once the pads come on. At the same time, this team has questions they need to answer. Bill Connelly of ESPN looks at 20 contenders and determines how many “ifs” need to go right for those teams, including the Oklahoma Sooners, to be “legit national title contenders (ESPN+).”
This is my annual “Ifs List” piece — an attempt to see how many “ifs” it takes me to turn a team into a genuine national title contender. The favorites don’t require many; a few others might have more than you think. – Bill Connelly, ESPN
The Sooners fall into the “4 ifs” tier of teams along with Utah, Michigan, and Oklahoma State. Let’s look at what Connelly had to say about Oklahoma and what needs to go right for the Sooners.
'If ... G5-to-P5 transfers thrive on defense'
Oklahoma’s Jeffery Johnson (77) during the University of Oklahoma’s annual spring football game at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, April 23, 2022. BRYAN TERRY/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY NETWORK
First-year coach Brent Venables brought in some Group of 5 stars to improve the defense. Those players don’t usually dominate right away at the power conference level, but OU’s hopes of a title-worthy defense might require guys like linebacker T.D. Roof (Appalachian State), cornerback C.J. Coldon (Wyoming) and end Jonah Laulu (Hawaii) to do just that. – Connelly, ESPN
The Oklahoma Sooners certainly have a lot invested in the transfer portal bag for 2022. And let’s not forget to include defensive tackle Jeffery Johnson who will be a huge part of the Oklahoma Sooners’ interior defensive line.
Yes, these players played at the Group of Five level and are making a jump in competition, but Brent Venables and the Sooners are banking on their experience being the difference for the Oklahoma Sooners.
'If ... at least one young stud emerges in the secondary'
Oct 9, 2021; Dallas, Texas, USA; Oklahoma Sooners defensive back Billy Bowman (5) and defensive back Justin Broiles (25) tackle Texas Longhorns running back Bijan Robinson (5) during the first half at the Cotton Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Coldon, nickel Justin Broiles and others will give the OU secondary a veteran presence. But the ceiling might not be high enough unless recent star recruits — sophomore safety Billy Bowman, freshman corner Gentry Williams — command a spot in the rotation. – Connelly, ESPN
There are a lot of interesting pieces for Jay Valai and Brandon Hall to work with. We know what to expect from Woodi Washington, and Key Lawrence’s semi-breakout at the end of the 2021 season provided some optimism that he’s ready to ascend into being an impact player for the Sooners in 2022.
North Carolina transfer Trey Morrison is also a player to watch in the Sooners’ secondary. Like the guys mentioned above, his experience and ability to play multiple spots in the secondary will make him an important fit for Oklahoma.
'If ... the Dillon Gabriel-Jeff Lebby marriage is still dynamite'
Oklahoma Offensive Coordinator Jeff Lebby pats Dillon Gabriel (8) on the helmet during the University of Oklahoma’s annual spring football game at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, April 23, 2022. Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman
Lebby was UCF’s offensive coordinator in 2019, when Gabriel threw for 3,653 yards as a true freshman and UCF finished 14th in offensive SP+. The two reunite in Norman. Gabriel is accurate, poised and ready for the tempo Lebby demands. This should work out really well. – Connelly, ESPN
“Reunited, and it feels so good!”
The song by Peaches and Herb could end up being the anthem for the Oklahoma Sooners this season. Not only has Brent Venables returned, but Dillon Gabriel and Jeff Lebby are back together for the first time since Gabriel’s freshman season at UCF in 2019.
The Big 12 has gotten defensive over the last couple of seasons, making quality quarterback play all the more important. In the games the Sooners lost last year to Baylor and Oklahoma State, the quarterback play wasn’t good enough against the two best defenses in the Big 12, and it cost them.
If they can pick up where they left off, it will give the Sooners a shot at returning to the Big 12 championship game and contending for a College Football Playoff spot this season.
'If ... a revamped receiving corps is as good as it looks'
April 23, 2022; Norman; Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Marvin Mims (17) celebrates wide receiver Theo Wease (10) after scoring a touchdown during the spring game at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
OU’s three receptions leaders are gone, but Gabriel will still have Marvin Mims, injury returnee Theo Wease and Arizona State transfer LV Bunkley-Shelton at his disposal. Can Mims in particular enjoy a breakout year? – Connelly, ESPN
Gone are Jadon Haselwood, Mario Williams, and Michael Woods, but that should lead people to believe that this wide receiver group will be worse. In fact, there’s a chance it could be much better with Marvin Mims about to get featured in the offense and Wease’s return from injury.
For all the depth the Sooners had at wide receiver in 2021, it somehow became a detriment as Mims didn’t play as much as he should have and didn’t see the target share that a guy averaging 22 yards per reception should have.
Jalil Farooq could be on the verge of a breakout season after his Alamo Bowl performance and Jayden Gibson could push for playing time after he showed out in the spring game.
Drake Stoops returns to provide the steady hands at the wide receiver position and will get a lot of looks for Oklahoma in the slot this season.
The addition of L.V. Bunkley Shelton to the wide receiver depth chart provides a guy that can step in and play in the slot from day one for the Sooners.
Oklahoma will be in contention
April 23, 2022; Norman; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables reacts during the spring game at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Though a lot has to go right for the Oklahoma Sooners, this looks like a team ready to erase 2021 from its memory bank and set off on a new voyage with Brent Venables at the helm.
There are certainly questions about this team heading into the season, but with their additions in the transfer portal, and the progression of younger players, those questions will be answered early in the season with their road test at Nebraska.
It may be optimistic, but this looks like a team ready to contend in 2022.
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