NORMAN — Some of the soundest logic in Stillwater late Saturday came from Billy Bowman.
“We’re 7-2, not 2-7,” the Oklahoma safety said about an hour after the Sooners’ 27-24 loss to Oklahoma State. “We don’t have a losing record. This wasn’t last year. We’ve still got an opportunity to go for a double-digit win season.”
It was a good dose of perspective from the junior playmaker in the aftermath of OU’s second season-altering defeat in as many weeks.
The Sooners, undoubtedly, are in a much sturdier place in November 2023 than they were this time last year. OU is better on both sides of the ball. It’s cleared hurdles — Texas, among them — the Sooners of 2022 never could have. A 10-win in Year 2 under Brent Venables season remains very much in reach.
And yet … 7-2 after the first weekend of November does carry some serious implications for OU.
If the Sooners’ College Football Playoff hopes were fading before Bedlam, they vanished over the weekend somewhere on the turf at Boone Pickens Stadium.
Their back-to-back losses to foes in the upper crust of the league now have OU sitting fourth in the Big 12 standings ahead of West Virginia’s visit to Norman Saturday night.
Suddenly, the Sooners’ once simple route to the Dec. 2 conference title game isn’t so straightforward, if open at all.
Bowman is right; OU has plenty more to play for over the final three games of the regular season. But the aspirations the Sooners laid out for themselves in August are hanging on by a thread.
How did the Sooners that opened 6-0 reach this point by early November? Where do they stand in the conference race now? And how narrow is OU’s path to Arlington after the crushing Bedlam defeat?
How did OU get here?
Rewind 30 days. It’s only been a full month since the Sooners rolled out of the Cotton Bowl on Oct. 7 atop the Big 12 and, seemingly, the world.
OU’s 34-30 win over Texas gave Venables the biggest win of his head coaching career and handed the Sooners vindication on last fall’s 49-0 drubbing.
It also put the Sooners in the driver’s seat of the Big 12 title race at the season’s halfway point. Staring down six games against the nation’s 51st toughest remainder schedule from Oct. 21 to Nov. 24, OU had a road map to the playoff and a clear path to securing a spot in the conference championship game.
The initial cracks showed against UCF after the Sooners’ Week 7 bye before OU kicked into gear to hang onto a 31-29 home win. Ultimately unscathed against the Knights, the issues OU showed in their Week 8 win came to bite them in the 38-33 loss at Kansas seven days later.
The defeat in Lawrence dropped the Sooners to No. 10 in the AP Top 25 and dragged OU into the fray of a five-team melee atop the Big 12, battling front-runners OSU, Texas, Kansas and Kansas State for two conference title game spots with four games to play.
Then came Saturday in Stillwater. Jeff Lebby’s offense struggled for consistency and came up short in the biggest moments. OU’s defense played well enough to win but leaked at least one time too many. A lack of discipline from the Sooners — and their head coach — burned Venables and Co. once again.
In only a matter of weeks, the stakes on the back half of OU’s 2023 have receded almost entirely.
“It’s probably easy for everybody else to say, well, we must be doing something different,” Venables said. “We are slipping because we are playing good teams and we’ve made some critical mistakes you can’t make at the wrong time.”
Perhaps nothing has changed internally for the Sooners. There’s no doubting just how much their final Big 12 campaign has deviated in the past 30 days.
Where do the Sooners stand now?
OU’s Big 12 title hopes now lie in a precarious place. They also rest on the assumption that the Sooners will win out through their remaining schedule. There are no givens up ahead, even against a relatively light schedule based on OU’s run of play over the last month.
Here’s the schedule breakdown for each remaining Big 12 contender:
Texas (8-1, 5-1 Big 12): at TCU, at Iowa State, Texas Tech
OSU (7-2, 5-1): at UCF, at Houston, BYU
Kansas (7-2, 4-2): Texas Tech, Kansas State, at Cincinnati
OU (7-2, 4-2): West Virginia, at BYU, TCU
Kansas State (6-2, 4-2): Baylor, at Kansas, Iowa State
West Virginia (6-3, 4-2): at OU, Cincinnati, at Baylor
Iowa State (5-4, 4-2): at BYU, Texas, at Kansas State
Texas and OSU enter play Saturday with the simplest paths to AT&T Stadium on the first Saturday of December. Win out respectively over their remaining games, all against teams in the bottom half of the Big 12 standings, and the programs will punch their tickets to the title game.
Photo gallery: Bedlam 2023 in pictures
Past that, the conference title game scenarios for the Sooners and the four others with two conference losses are vast and many. Yet as they pertain to the Sooners, things are pretty simple: it’s time for OU to root for the Cowboys and anyone who plays Texas.
One of those things might be easier than the other.
The best card still in the Sooners’ pocket is that Oct. 7 win. Should the Longhorns pick up another loss over the next three weeks, two-loss OU has the tiebreaker to jump Texas in the league standings. Sooners fans should be fans of TCU, Iowa State and Texas Tech over the next three weeks.
Losses for Kansas State and Kansas would aid OU’s cause. So would a 3-0 finish for OSU. Roughly a month after OU-Texas appeared as a locked-on conference title game matchup, the Sooners’ best shot at a trip to Arlington has emerged in the form of a Bedlam rematch.
All of that, of course, hinges on OU winning its final three games. Nothing about the Sooners’ last three outings suggests anything in front of them is certain.
What does it all mean for the Sooners?
Two things can be true.
If OU hits nine or 10 wins this fall, a year removed from 6-7 in 2022, Venables’ second season will be considered a qualified success. And, if the Sooners miss out on the Big 12 title game next month, it can be considered a true disappointment.
OU laid out its aspirations for 2023 in the summer.
Venables talked about being good enough to hang a banner in June. His players spoke about their conference title aspirations in August. OU players and staffers were wearing shirts with the date of the Big 12 Championship — Dec. 2, 2023 — around the team facility in the early weeks of the season.
So, after the Sooners positioned themselves so perfectly to achieve that goal through six games, their second half slip would have to sting for Venables, his players and the bar OU set for itself.
A lot of good has happened through Venables’ 23 months in charge.
OU has inked a top-five recruiting class in 2023 and is on its way to another impressive haul in 2024. The Sooners have completely overhauled all the struggles of a year ago. Venables has the program he’s hoping to build on the tracks.
However, from where the Sooners once stood not too long ago, it’ll be hard to view the back half of Venables’ second season without shades of letdown and regret if OU is watching the Big 12 title game from Norman next month.