NORMAN — It’s too early to get too carried away with the 6-0 Sooners.
Far too soon to talk about Oklahoma reaching its first national title game since the 2008 season.
Not yet time to discuss the Sooners as anything other than well-positioned to chase a return to the College Football Playoff.
OU fans can probably start eyeing Arlington on the first Saturday of December, but there’s still plenty between the Sooners and a spot in the Big 12 Championship game, too.
The point: OU is a long way from the college football mountaintop the Sooners last summited under Bob Stoops on Jan. 3, 2001. But as expectations soar in Norman, at least one person already sees similarities between this OU team and the Sooners who brought home the program’s most recent national title.
After the Sooners topped Texas 34-30 earlier this month, Brent Venables was asked if his current squad reminded him of any OU teams of the past.
“It reminds me a little bit of that 2000 (team),” he said. “No offense to those guys back in the day. No offense to these guys. But we had a bunch of misfits back in 2000. We didn’t know how good we could be.”
“That (2000 team) was a group, they were tough as all get out. They were raggedy, young and they just came every day and went to work. And these guys have done exactly that. We’re a little shinier in some spots than that group. But also I think the parallels are that we didn’t know how good we can be.”
Venables, of course, would know a thing or two about those parallels.
He was there when OU last lifted a national championship trophy. It was the defense he led with Mike Stoops that held Florida State to two points at the Orange Bowl in 2001.
More than two decades later, it’s the Week 6 win Venables oversaw against the Longhorns — the most important of his head coaching career — that has the fifth-ranked Sooners firmly in the CFP discussion as OU returns from its bye to face UCF Saturday morning (11 a.m., ABC).
Venables sees shades of the 2000 OU team in this year’s group. So do 2000 Sooners like Jimmy Wilkerson.
The former OU pass rusher was following along on the turnpike somewhere between Oklahoma City and Tulsa when the Sooners completed their comeback win past Texas.
“He’s right. It looked just like the 2000 team,” said Wilkerson. “Those guys are really bought into what coach Venables has brought to the table and what he’s been teaching them.”
The simple comparisons between the two teams are easy to identify.
Like the Josh Heupel-led Sooners of 2000, this year’s team has a tough, veteran transfer lefty under center in Dillon Gabriel. This OU team shares the same gritty defense and a knack for timely turnovers and critical stops as the team that claimed the program’s seventh national championship. Both had a second-year head coach leading the way.
Another parallel? Each team, relatively speaking, came out of nowhere.
That’s where the similarities begin for former All-American linebacker Teddy Lehman.
“I think maybe the biggest thing overall is pretty much since that 2000 season there’s been a bunch of serious expectations that have kind of been hanging over the program and over the team,” he said.
That heavy weight of expectation didn’t hang over the Sooners in 2000 after Stoops followed three losing seasons under John Blake with a 7-5 finish in 1999. Ditto for Venables and Co. this fall following the OU’s 6-7 finish in 2022, the Sooners’ first losing season since Blake’s final fall in Norman in 1998.
“Rarely do you get to start the year off with people saying if we improve on the 6-7 season and maybe go 9-3, that’s a good year,” Leham said. “That doesn’t happen around here … I think being able to start the year off like that might put you in the same starting block as that 2000 season.”
Like the 2000 Sooners, OU began this fall unshackled from the sky-high hopes that typically hover over the program. And like those Sooners in Stoops’ second season, this year’s team rolled through non conference play before the temperature turned up with a win over Texas.
OU outscored UTEP, Arkansas State and Rice by a combined margin of 142-35 to open the 2000 season, then beat Kansas in a game that was closer than the 34-16 final indicated.
Venables says the 2000 team “didn’t know how good” it could be. That flipped when the Sooners went 5-0 that fall in 63-14 over Texas at the Cotton Bowl.
“That team wasn’t national championship caliber early in the year. It was a one-game at a time,” Lehman said. “I think (after beating Texas) is when everyone was kind of like, ‘Okay, maybe we are good,’. That’s whenever things really started to change.”
Seeing the similarities yet?
The 2000 Sooners were defined by the toughness that trickled down from Stoops at the top in his second season in charge. Twenty-two months into Venables’ tenure, the same might be unfolding at OU in 2023.
“It’s not immediate,” Lehman said. “Change is difficult.”
On defense, there are statistical parallels to be found.
The Sooners gave up 14.8 points per game on their way to a national title in 2000. Through six games in 2023, OU is allowing 14.0. The yardage differential between the two teams is nearly identical at 152.3 this fall and 150.4 in 2000.
For players like Wilkerson, the notes that resonate are based less in numbers and confirmed better by the eye test. The monumental goal line stand the Sooners pulled off at the Cotton Bowl in Week 5 brought the former All-Big 12 defensive end back to practice fields in Norman.
It didn’t matter if Heupel was throwing the ball or if Quentin Griffin was running up the middle, goal line practice was everything.
“Our job was to keep them out of the end zone,” Wilkerson said. “And if we let them in the end zone, that was a loss.
“We took it personally. I understood that goal line stand (against Texas). Because that is the same type of mentality that Venables had back in 2000. He’s never changed. He’s always brought that same intensity. He still brings that same energy.”
Like the Sooners in October, 2000, plenty lies ahead of OU in 2023. Lehman recalls how the Sooners only improved after beating Texas that fall. This OU team must do the same.
“The 2000 team did not let off the gas,” he said. “We never said, ‘We’re good. We’re where we need to be,’ We continued to press harder to get better.”
In 2023, OU’s post-Texas looks cushy. The Action Network gives the Sooners an 87% chance of completing the regular season unbeaten. Lehman remembers close calls against Texas A&M and Oklahoma State in 2000, the kinds of games that could have tripped up OU’s championship trajectory.
He also doesn’t predict the Sooners will get complacent after last Saturday’s win.
“There’s no way this team should be able to walk away from that game, look at that film and feel like they’re a national championship ready football team,” Lehman said. “Because they’re not. I know 1,000% that is not the coaching they’re going to be getting. I know Venables is going to be saying look at all these mistakes. We are not where we need to be.”
Perhaps the most interesting note in Venables’ comparison between the two teams had little to do with football. Speaking on the 2000 Sooners, he pointed out the tight relationship between Heupel and Torrance Marshall; the quarterback from Aberdeen, South Dakota and the linebacker from Miami.
“The guys couldn’t be more opposite as people. But man, those were the real fiber of our football team,” Venables said. “And this is a team (in 2023) that has grown incredibly close over the last several months.”
Lehman, a member of the Sooners’ radio broadcast team, agrees.
“They seem to have some really good chemistry on the team,” he said. “Xs and Os matter. And talent matters. But chemistry may be the thing that’s talked about the least and may have the biggest impact on how you play as a team. You have to care about one another.”
There’s a mountain of work in front of OU to reach the heights the Sooners of Lehman, Wilkerson and Venables reached in 2000. They believe the ingredients, however, are there in 2023.
“This team is a playoff team,” Wilkerson said. “No doubt about it.”