Going into the SEC was always going to be tough, but going into it with a new starting quarterback adjusting to a new playcaller and coach? The degree of difficulty has suddenly gone up for the Sooners.
NORMAN — The new year is several weeks away, but in Norman, it feels like 2024 is already here.
Jeff Lebby is out, rolling his two years as OU’s offensive coordinator into a lucrative Power Five head coaching position at Mississippi State. Seth Littrell is in, moving from Sooner analyst to offensive coordinator, calling plays and coaching quarterbacks, for his alma mater.
Also out, Dillon Gabriel, who opted to enter the transfer portal instead of returning to OU for a third season. Also in, Jackson Arnold, who was always going to be the heir apparent at quarterback whenever Gabriel departed.
All of that means we’ll soon get a sneak peek at next year. During the Alamo Bowl, Littrell will be play calling and Arnold will be quarterbacking.
New OC. New QB. Should be fun.
But of course, in the actual new year, the Sooners will have one additional new thing to contend with: the Southeastern Conference. Going into the toughest league in college football was always going to be tough, but going into it with a new starting quarterback adjusting to a new playcaller and coach?
The degree of difficulty has suddenly gone up for the Sooners.
That’s not to say success in the SEC next season is impossible. The Sooners made great strides from last season to now, especially on defense. Across the board, they are bigger. Stronger. Faster. Tougher. Smarter. Better.
All of that bodes well for OU when its conference schedule starts consisting of Alabama and Tennessee, LSU and Ole Miss, Auburn and South Carolina, Missouri and oh, yes, Texas.
But with that SEC slate, having a quarterback already proven to be one of the best in the nation sure would’ve been nice.
Any first-year starting quarterback is bound to have growing pains. Baker Mayfield had them at Texas Tech. Kyler Murray had them at Texas A&M. Jalen Hurts … well, you get the idea. Arnold is going to have them, too.
Had OU been in the Big 12 next season, we’d have seen Arnold have struggles. Maybe they’d have lasted a series or two. Maybe a game. Maybe longer. But if he struggled against Baylor and Cincinnati and Arizona State, you might not have noticed. The OU defense might’ve picked up the slack. Or perhaps the Sooner run game would’ve smoothed things over.
But struggle in Baton Rouge or Oxford, scuttle against the Crimson Tide or the Bayou Bengals, and the outcome might be different for the Sooners.
Listen, I understand lots of fans are ready for the start of the Arnold era. He is a former five-star recruit, and with that hullabaloo comes great anticipation. Folks are excited to see what Arnold might become.
And he might become great. He might become the next OU quarterback to lead the Sooners to the College Football Playoff. The next Heisman Trophy winner from OU. The next quarterback taken No. 1 in the NFL Draft.
But we don’t know.
What we do know: Dillon Gabriel was among the best quarterbacks in college football this year. Big 12 first-team quarterback. Manning Award finalist. Maxwell Award semifinalist. He threw for a ton of yards and ran for a bunch more. He led the team and set the tone. He was a team leader and a game winner.
His late-game heroics against Texas cemented his place in OU lore.
And with the quarterbacks who will be heading to the NFL, including Caleb Williams, Michael Penix Jr., Jayden Daniels, Drake Maye and Bo Nix, Gabriel will enter next season as one of the best five quarterbacks in all of college football.
Let’s see, if Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy and Texas’ Quinn Ewers return for another season, they’ll rank at the top of next year’s crop. Shedeur Sanders and Carson Beck have piqued the interest of many NFL types. While Gabriel isn’t the NFL prospect those quarterbacks are, he compares quite favorably otherwise.
He’ll be as sought after as any quarterback in the portal.
Quite frankly, if the Sooners didn’t have Arnold, they’d be hoping and praying to snag a quarterback as good as Gabriel from the portal. (Quite frankly, even with incoming freshman Michael Hawkins, OU may well seek out a transfer quarterback from a Group of Five or lower level who could be a break-glass-if-necessary option.)
The Sooners have a lot of things pointing in the right direction as they prepare to head into the SEC. Improvement. Physicality. Skill. Confidence. But one thing they don’t have is an experienced starting quarterback.
That doesn’t make SEC success impossible next year.
It just comes with a higher degree of difficulty.