SAN ANTONIO — Brent Venables remembers well OU’s last trip to the Alamo Bowl.
It was his first time on the Sooner sideline as the OU head coach.
Venables wasn’t actually coaching that night, of course. OU had an interim coach after Lincoln Riley’s unexpected departure for Southern Cal. Pulled the interim out of retirement. Guy by the name of Bob Stoops.
I often wonder what became of him.
But seriously, that night two years ago was very much the dawn of the Venables’ era. Stoops even handed his signature visor over to Venables during the postgame trophy presentation. A ceremonial passing of the torch.
It was a beginning at the end.
A start at the finish.
And so it is again for Venables and the Sooners as they return to the Alamo Bowl. This time, it’s not because OU has a new head coach. Rather, the Sooners have a new quarterback. And a new offensive coordinator. And a largely new offensive line.
The team headed to San Antonio to face Arizona looks more like the one that will head to the SEC next year instead of the one that just won 10 games in its final year in the Big 12.
“Right now, we’re treating the last game of the season like it’s the first game,” Venables said of the state of things in college football. “It’s just kind of wild.”
Venables didn’t say what it was the first game of, but we can reasonably assume he meant the first game of next season. That’s what this bowl is for the Sooners, a precursor to 2024, a preseason game for next year in the postseason of this year.
Honestly, though, this is what many bowls have become for many teams.
The reasons for that are many. Coaching changes. Transfers. Opt-outs. OU has all of those, but none are bigger than the transfer of starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel and the departure of offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby.
Had either one of them made a move, it would’ve signaled a time of change. But had Gabriel been the only one on the move, we know Lebby had a good relationship with Jackson Arnold, who picked OU in large part because of Lebby and his offense. There’s reason to believe that transition would’ve gone smoothly.
Ditto for Lebby going and Gabriel staying. The veteran quarterback is among the most talented and experienced in college football. He’d have probably taken on a player-coach type of role, helping new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell and acting as a go-between with the other players.
But losing both Gabriel and Lebby?
It’s the end of an era before the end of the season.
And of course, that has triggered the start of a new era before the start of a new season.
The whole thing is backwards. Weird. Wild, as Venables said.
But is it permanent?
Players opting out of bowl games is a phenomenon that’s here to stay. Frankly, it’s almost impossible to blame any player with NFL aspirations for sitting out of a bowl not tied to the College Football Playoff. The stakes of these non-playoff bowls are minimal. Why risk getting hurt and losing money in a game that is largely unimportant?
Players and coaches leaving before bowls, however, could be reduced if the winter transfer window was moved.
Players are entering the portal and, in some instances, committing to new schools before lots of teams even start their bowl practices. That has prompted schools to fire coaches earlier and earlier, then hire replacements as soon as possible. Schools want to give their new coaches a jump on the portal.
Move the portal window, and you’d change some of those dynamics.
“If you look at the NFL model,” Venables said, “the NFL, they don’t have free agency before the Super Bowl, right? Can you imagine? The playoffs and free agency’s going on? That’s what’s going on (in college football). So, we got to clean that up.
“It’s not good for anybody.”
I’m on record as being a staunch supporter of players having freedom to transfer. Coaches can break contracts and move around for new jobs. Players should have the same rights to go somewhere different.
But the winter portal window could be moved and still allow players that freedom.
Why not open the portal on Jan. 2?
That would put the window after all the non-playoff bowls; players who intended to transfer could stay and play with their team in a bowl before entering the portal. Schools also wouldn’t need to move quite so quickly on coach firings and hirings.
Moving the winter window to January isn’t a perfect solution. Since the spring semester starts on most campuses the second or third week of the month, programs would have to hustle to get transfers signed so they could enroll, move and start classes. It’d be a bit hectic.
But what’s happening now is more than a bit hectic.
There are so few bowl teams that go largely unaffected that the ones that do are noteworthy. OU will actually face one in the Alamo Bowl. Arizona has lost only a handful of players to the portal — none were major contributors this season — and it had just one impactful opt out, its starting left tackle.
OU faced a similarly intact team last bowl season, too, in Florida State.
Still, there are way more teams like these Sooners than those Seminoles and Wildcats.
For Venables’ part, he intends to use the bowl to the Sooners’ advantage. The offensive line is going to have several new faces after the opt outs of Andrew Raym and Tyler Guyton, and the transfers of Cayden Green and Savion Byrd. That opens the door for the likes of Caleb Shaffer, Josh Bates, Jake Taylor and Heath Ozaeta.
“They got to learn how to play,” Venables said, “and the way you learn how to play and improve and get better is by playing.”
The same could be said of Arnold. He needs to get starts and snaps in real, live games. Needs to face pressure and defenses that aren’t in crimson and cream practice gear. Needs to start getting comfortable with Littrell.
The only way to do that is to, well, do it.
“It’s better now kind of working through all that than next year, get baptized going into the SEC,” Venables said.
This is like an exhibition game for next year’s team.
“You just try to adapt and adjust,” Venables said. “You do the best you can … and continue to not allow the extenuating circumstances to change who we are and the things that again we value.”
Core values may not change, but at OU and lots of other places, those changing circumstances have created a unique situation — a beginning at the end, a start at the finish, a new season before the old one is even over.