NORMAN — Brent Venables takes time after every season to do some big-picture evaluation.
Makes sense that he wouldn’t do that during the season. Too many other duties to tackle, whether as a defensive coordinator or now as a head coach. Too much that has to be handled in the moment.
But when I asked the OU coach during his weekly press conference what improvement he’s seen in his program from a year ago, Venables didn’t completely defer until later.
He pointed to his Sooners’ closer-than-expected but hard-fought win last week at BYU.
“Where … we had to overcome several things,” he said. “Whether it’s losing our quarterback and not having him in the second half. Or not fitting gaps right pretty consistently for most of the day with our linebackers.
“But still finding a way to win.”
These Sooners have done that way more than last year’s bunch, and that’s a great sign.
But does it help make this season a success?
As OU prepares for its final regular-season game — 11 a.m. Friday vs. TCU in Norman — now is a good time to consider the state of the Sooners. Sure, the evaluation will change if they get to the Big 12 title game and win the darn thing. Of course, it will change again if they go to a New Year’s Six bowl and score a victory. And still, coming to the end of the regular season feels like a good time to think about how far this program has come and how far it has yet to go.
To do that, we need to rewind to this time last season.
The Sooners entered the final week having just gotten bowl eligible by winning Bedlam. That victory broke a two-game losing streak, a pair of three-point losses to Baylor and West Virginia.
Those close losses didn’t feel as bad as earlier blowout losses to TCU and Texas, but still, they didn’t feel great.
In the end, OU would lose five one-score games.
This year, the Sooners have won three such games (Texas, UCF and BYU), but they’ve also lost two (Kansas and OSU).
“Success is not a straight line, in case anybody didn’t realize that,” Venables said. “Success is never a straight line. I’ve experienced tremendous success at the very highest level, and it’s never been a straight line.”
So it is with the current state of OU football.
But let’s consider what has changed.
*Winning some close games. That’s significant since it’s a sign of tenacity, confidence and belief.
*Playing better defense. Whatever metric you want to use, the Sooner defense has improved. It isn’t as good as the OU defenses of yesteryear, but it is no longer an embarrassment to them.
*Winning more games. These Sooners have a chance to win 10 games in the regular season, and reaching that double-digit mark has become something of a gold standard in college football.
Some might argue that considering the easy nature of this year’s schedule. Half of the 12 games on the docket weren’t in a power conference last season, and before the season, the six games OU had against legacy Big 12 opponents didn’t look like a murderer’s row.
Texas, OSU, Iowa State, TCU, Kansas and West Virginia.
Past Texas, TCU seemed like it could be the toughest test since the Horned Frogs were coming off an appearance in the national championship game. But instead, TCU is the worst of the bunch, and four of those six (Texas, OSU, West Virginia and Iowa State) look poised to finish in the top half of the league. Kansas could get there, too, depending on how this final weekend goes.
Still, if you think back to the preseason when we didn’t know how much the Sooners would improve, when we didn’t know that Dillon Gabriel would be a much better quarterback, when we didn’t know that Danny Stutsman and Billy Bowman and the defense would make even bigger strides, most folks would’ve said a 10-win season would be a success.
A season that included a victory against Texas?
That would’ve been considered an even bigger success.
So here OU sits with 10 wins in its sights and a win against Texas in its back pocket. Safe to say, you can count this season as a success in terms of results and process. And both are important as the Sooners prepare for the SEC.
Now, OU is not a finished product. Venables cited consistency as one of the areas that’s still lacking.
“The hardest thing to do in intercollegiate athletics is to have consistency,” he said. “That’s what we all want. The best players I’ve coached, the best units I’ve coached, if they’ve been something, they’ve been consistent.
“Our mindset has been great. Our attitude and our willingness to invest has been great. But I’m always looking again for that consistency piece.”
Safe to say, that’s one of those characteristics that comes later in the process. After you start playing better, after you start winning games, after you start believing and battling, then you figure out how to do those things more consistently. How to make them habits.
The Sooners were nowhere close to such a thing a year ago. Now, you can see it happening. That is big-time progress for this program, and that makes this season a success.
No need to wait until the season is over to evaluate and determine that.