Jenni Carlson: Confidence is impossible to quantify, but OU players and coaches say it’s the difference in winning close games that they lost a year ago.
NORMAN — Andrew Raym is accustomed to making quick decisions.
Despite knowing the OU center is always assessing defenses and adjusting plans, I was still surprised at the speed and conviction with which he answered one of my queries after the Sooners’ most recent victory.
You guys have won several close games this season. That didn’t happen last season. What’s changed?
“This team,” Raym said, “has confidence.”
I’ll be the first to admit, my eyes narrow and my nose scrunches when athletes contend confidence made a difference. It’s not that I don’t believe in confidence; I actually think pretty much every athlete has a fairly high level of confidence, lest they wouldn’t be able to do what they do.
Rather, my suspicion about confidence comes down to it being impossible to quantify.
But if I scrunched my nose or narrowed my eyes when Raym mentioned confidence, he either didn’t notice or didn’t care because he kept right on explaining.
“From January through August, we were put through a meat grinder,” he said. “Coach Venables always tells us the separation is found in the preparation. That’s what it’s got to be. I’m a full-on believer that the way we prepared the last 10 months and the way we prepare Monday through Friday for each game is the reason.”
As the Sooners prepare for their first road test as a bonafide playoff contender — 11 a.m. Saturday at Kansas (Fox) — they are undoubtedly a different team than a year ago. No doubt talent is part of the equation; when you have more talent, it’s easier to win close games. Same goes for understanding; last season was the Sooners’ first in new offensive and defensive systems, so the learning is much further along this season.
But talk to those inside the program, and they say confidence is a factor, too. They say it was when SMU and Cincinnati hung closer longer than anyone expected. When Texas took a late lead at the Cotton Bowl. When UCF threatened to derail OU playoff hopes.
Drill down from whence that confidence percolated, and the Sooners contend it’s because of what they have done on non-game days from the end of last season until now. Offseason workouts. Spring ball. Summer workouts. Preseason camp. In-season practices.
Wide receiver and touchdown machine Nic Anderson says that created comfort, which created confidence. Part of that is due to having a better understanding of the scheme, but the other bigger part is the bonds built with teammates.
“If you can trust and have a good relationship with the person beside you,” Anderson said, “you’re not going to have to worry about anything. You can focus on doing the right thing each play.”
Tailback Gavin Sawchuk said, “We’re all in the struggle with each other … and whatever the situation may be, we all experienced the grind together. We know that when we come up against a situation where we really go to show up to perform, we know we can because we have in the past.”
For Raym’s part, he believes the confidence that has infused the Sooners is more individual.
“The amount of hard work we put in does give us confidence that we are stronger and in better shape than other teams,” he said, “but it also just comes down to how much we know the details. … We’ve got more stamina. We’re stronger. We know our small things better than they do.”
Whether that’s actually true is anyone’s guess. Maybe Texas had every bit as much stamina as OU. Perhaps UCF knew the details as well as OU. Therein lies the unquantifiable part of confidence.
But here’s the thing: the Sooners believe they have those advantages.
And the result is, well, the results. OU has won back-to-back games by less than a score, which is two more than the Sooners won all of last season. That team have five single-score games, and it lost every single one of them.
A year ago, the Sooners were close in such games.
Now, they are winning them.
Could the difference be (gulp) confidence?
Sooner coach Brent Venables doesn’t give confidence all the credit. He says toughness and maturity are big parts of the equation, too.
“You better expect some opposition,” he said. “You better expect it to be difficult and challenging, not the other way. Don’t expect it to be easy. We try to nurture that mindset. It’s not an easy thing to nurture, but when you go through it, it develops some confidence having gone through that.”
Venables said the practice field is where it has to begin — “That’s our petri dish,” he said — but now, it is building upon itself.
“We’ve gone through it a little bit, whether that’s the Cincinnati game or certainly Texas or here today,” he said Saturday after the close call against UCF. “There’s lots of different ways to win, so try to create confidence in those moments.”
Something has changed in these Sooners, and even if it can’t be quantified, the wins sure can be.