NORMAN — Everything about the second half of Oklahoma’s 2023 season changed when Dillon Gabriel found Nic Anderson in the end zone in the final minute Saturday at the Cotton Bowl.
The Sooners’ 34-30 win over Texas gave Brent Venables his first Red River victory, returned rivalry momentum to OU and rectified last season’s 49-0 drubbing in Dallas.
More imminently, it transformed the potential trajectory of Venables’ second season in charge of the Sooners’.
At 6-0, the Sooners now have one of the nation’s most impressive wins on their resume. On Sunday, they shot seven spots up to No. 5 in the AP Top 25 three weeks before the first College Football Playoff rankings are released. For OU, Big 12 title game expectations can now realistically turn to CFP aspirations in 2023 well ahead of schedule for Venables and Co.
All of that will be dictated by the back half of the Sooners’ season.
OU hits its bye in Week 7 at the midway point in 2023. The Sooners close the regular season with six games from Oct. 21 to Nov. 24 against UCF, Kansas, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, BYU and TCU. The Big 12 Championship waits on Dec. 2 in Arlington, Texas, with a Red River rematch still in the cards.
As of Week 7, the six schools left on the regular season schedule carry a combined record of 22-10 with seven wins and nine losses in conference play. None rank top-50 nationally in both offense and defense.
Per ESPN’s College Football Power Index, OU has the 51st toughest remaining schedule in the country. Of the current AP Top 10, only Florida State has an easier road to close the regular season.
Run the table against the remaining slate and the Sooners could be playoff-bound even with a Big 12 title game loss. A late-season defeat might not crater OU either. Sixteen one-loss conference champions have reached the playoff since the postseason expanded in 2015.
All of a sudden, the Sooners are in the driver’s seat of their CFP destiny.
“I love what we’re building,” Venables said Saturday. “There’s no limits on what this team can do and no excuses, either. We have everything we need.”
There’s a clear path to the playoff for OU. Here’s what it’ll look like:
UCF head coach Gus Malzahn (Scott Sewell/USA TODAY Sports)
Oct. 21 vs. UCF (3-3, 0-3 Big 12)
(Points per game — 35.0, 32nd nationally | Points against — 27.8, 85th nationally)
Before it was fueling the Sooners’ sixth-ranked offense, the partnership of Dillon Gabriel and Jeff Lebby was born with the Knights.
“It’s where Dillon and I started,” Lebby said over the weekend.
The offensive duo gets its UCF reunion in Week 8. OU gets a favorable matchup out of the bye.
The Knights have three wins, including an 18-16 road victory at Boise State. They’ve also got three losses, including the blown 35-7 lead against Baylor and Saturday’s 51-22 loss to Kansas. UCF, which is off this week, has been outscored 80-29 over the last six quarters.
The Knights’ 123rd-ranked run defense will present opportunities for Gabriel and the OU run game on the ground. UCF got quarterback John Rhys Plumlee back from a leg injury in Week 6; his 33 yards on 3-of-7 passing won’t scare the Sooners.
RJ Harvey has six touchdowns and averages 5.7 yards per carry. But while the Knights are producing plenty of yards and points, they’re getting gashed defensively even more frequently.
OU should be heavily favored when it returns to Owen Field on the third Saturday in October.
Kansas quarterback Jason Bean (Peter Aiken/USA TODAY Sports)
Oct. 28 at Kansas (5-1, 2-1 Big 12)
(Points per game — 36.0, 22nd nationally |Points against — 25.5, 71st nationally)
The visit to Lawrence ranks as possibly the toughest game remaining on OU’s regular season schedule.
Kansas tunes up at Oklahoma State on Saturday and it appears the Jayhawks are … rolling?
After reaching the program’s first bowl game since 2009 last fall, the project under Lance Leipold has hit another gear in 2023. Kansas comes in at No. 23 in this week’s AP Top 25.
Quarterback Jalon Daniels (back) has missed two straight games and three altogether. The caliber of the offense dips without Daniel, the preseason Big 12 offensive player of the year, but still had enough with backup Jason Bean to drop 51 points and 399 rushing yards on UCF as the Jayhawks bounced back from a loss at Texas.
Deven Neal (12.8 yards per carry vs UCF) and Daniel Hishaw Jr. (134, yards two touchdowns) make for a dangerous rushing duo. If Daniels is healthy by Week 9, Kansas will possess threats in the air and on the ground.
Like UCF, questions lie with the Jayhawks defense and its ability to stop an attack like the Sooners’.
Oklahoma State’s Cameron Epps (7) celebrates his interception with Nickolas Martin (4) in the first half of OSU’s 29-21 victory Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater. (Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman/ USA TODAY Network)
Nov. 4 at Oklahoma State (3-2, 1-2 Big 12)
(Points per game — 23.4, 99th nationally | Points against — 23.2, 55th nationally)
It’s the last football Bedlam, at least for quite a while. Could the Pokes play Sooner spoiler on the first weekend of November?
Maybe, but the Cowboys don’t have much firepower to challenge an OU defense that’s allowed eight touchdowns through six games.
Veteran passer Alan Bowman seems to have the starting quarterback job locked down six weeks into the season. The former Texas Tech and Michigan transfer is in charge now of kickstarting one of the nation’s slowest offenses; a vintage Mike Gundy attack this is not.
The Cowboys ranks 91st in yards per game (357.2). Their 5.0 yards per play sit 114th out of 133 FBS offenses. Only eight offenses nationally are gaining less than OSU’s 5.4 yards per pass attempt. Coordinator Kasey Dunn’s fourth offense in Stillwater is finding the end zone at a medicare clip of 2.4 times per game.
OSU got back in the Big 12 win column with a Friday night victory over Kansas State. The Cowboys visit West Virginia and host Cincinnati the two weekends before OU heads to Stillwater.
An extra layer of drama will be there in the final Bedlam meeting before the Sooners leave for the SEC. The 2023 season may offer Cowboy fans no sweeter taste than a CFP-spoiling Bedlam upset.
On the field, however, the gap between OU and OSU appears as wide as it’s been in some time.
West Virginia head coach Neal Brown. (Ben Queen/USA TODAY Sports)
Nov. 11 vs. West Virginia (4-0, 2-0 Big 12)
(Points per game — 26.4, 85th nationally | Points against — 19.0, 32nd nationally)
The Sooners will see the best team coach Neal Brown has had at West Virginia in Week 11.
Brown showed up to Big 12 Media Days in July and called out the reporters who picked West Virginia to finish last in the league’s preseason media poll.
“The positive is that the media … as far as predicting the Big 12, has not been very successful in recent years. So I think that bodes well for us,” Brown said.
“I believe in our staff and believe in our players. And then how we finish will be the next thing. We beat Oklahoma, beat Oklahoma State on the road, winning two of our last three games. Offensively, this is going to be our best group … And defensively, we’re going to be one of the most improved units in the Big 12, if not in the country.”
Fair play to Brown, who spoke that day from what many presumed to be the hottest seat in the country. Four games into his 2023 season, the Mountaineers are 4-0 with wins over Pitt, Texas Tech and West Virginia.
That strong start in Morgantown has come with the nation’s 35th-best run defense (114.8 yards per game) led by linebacker Lee Kpogba and run game averaging nearly 200 yards behind one of the nation’s most experienced offensive lines.
You can question who West Virginia has played thus far. There’s also no question they could come to Norman with seven or eight wins with Houston, OSU, UCF and BYU on the schedule before the Mountaineers’ trip to Owen Field.
Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Kedon Slovis. (Jeff Swinger/USA TODAY Sports)
Nov. 18 at BYU (4-1, 1-1 Big 12)
(Points per game — 31.0, 57th nationally | Points against — 22.4, 50th nationally)
Per ESPN’s Football Power Index, this is the easiest game left on the Sooners’ slate. The visit is also the first leg in the most daunting scheduling stretch of OU’s remaining schedule ahead of the Black Friday matchup with TCU.
The Cougars are among the most balanced Big 12 programs in 2023 ranked in the top-60 nationally in both offensive and defensive scoring. Fifth-year passer Kedon Slovis, now at his third school, is providing BYU steady quarterback play. Tyler Batty’s 3.5 sacks ranks sixth among Big 12 pass rushers.
There’s nothing flashy about the Cougars. But a BYU team that’s eclipsed 35 points in three of its five games on its way to 4-1 can be dangerous. All sorts of wonkiness could lie within an expected night kickoff in Sooners’ first trip to Provo.
If there’s a trap game in the back half of the Sooners’ schedule, this might be it. The Cougars’ true level will be tested in trips to TCU, Texas and West Virginia in the coming weeks.
Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Jeremiah Cooper (4) takes down TCU’s Jack Bech (18) during Iowa State’s 27-14 win Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa. (Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune/USA TODAY Network)
Nov. 24 vs. TCU (3-3, 1-2)
(Points per game — 31.3, 54th nationally |Points against — 22.0, 48th nationally)
The magic dust of the 2022 season has left the Horned Frogs. A year removed from playing for a national championship, TCU may struggle to reach six wins.
A program that scored more than all but nine teams across the country last fall (38.8 PPG) has been held to 21 and 14 points in back-to-back losses to West Virginia and Iowa State.
TCU’s problem isn’t production. Its 472.5 yards per game rank 17th nationally. Execution, however, has been a struggle. The Horned Frogs are tied for 123rd nationally in the red zone, level with non-world beaters Nebraska, Temple and San Diego State.
TCU hasn’t allowed a 300-yard passer since Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders torched its secondary for 510 yards in Week 1. Otherwise, it’s an undaunting Horned Frogs defense beyond junior linebacker Namdi Obiazor, who now ranks third in the Big 12 with 46 tackles.
The regular season finale comes six days after the BYU game on the morning after Thanksgiving. Scheduling may be the Sooners’ stiffest challenge in Week 13.