Let’s be honest: Oklahoma is not “close.”
That’s the word Lincoln Riley used time after time to assuage a savvy fan base’s angst over how poorly his team was playing.
Whether that was “agonizingly close” to winning a national championship after falling behind Alabama 28-0 in the Orange Bowl or just regular “close” after stumbling through a 16-13 home victory over a middling West Virginia (or, frankly, name your 2021 opponent), Riley’s efforts to pump sunshine about his program eventually began to fall on deaf ears.
Constant evidence to the contrary eventually led Sooner Nation to tune him out.
Saturday night’s 41-34 loss to Kansas State, on the other hand, stands as a stern reminder that the Brent Venables era isn’t close to being a finished product yet, that with Riley’s same players and a bunch of newcomers, a transition period should be expected.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Venables said Saturday night. “I don’t look at it that way. If I hadn’t seen all the good, the cleanliness, the physical toughness, the fundamentals, if I hadn’t seen it, y’know, I wouldn’t expect it. But I’ve seen it. Tonight, it didn’t happen.”
There’s also the reality that the Sooners’ previous three games — against three bad to average teams — actually did reveal flaws in Oklahoma’s performance, but neither UTEP, Kent State or Nebraska was good enough to exploit those flaws.
Kansas State was.
Overthrowing a wide open receiver for a touchdown in Lincoln wasn't all that damning. Missing an assignment on a scrambling quarterback against Kent State didn't hurt too bad.
But those same small misses against K-State, plus a sea of penalties, missed tackles and other mistakes, was too much to overcome.
“Tonight,” Venables said, “I saw a football game where I don't think that we played like we had these first three weeks. It starts with the man in the mirror.”
“I’m hopeful that (Saturday’s loss) was an aberration. We’ve got things as a coaching staff we need to address and get better, put them in a better position. And then we need to challenge one another through adversity.
“When you take a step backwards, you learn a lot about yourself, you learn a lot about one another. Like I said, sometimes that pressure and those moments of failure reveal some things you have to address as well. I’m not really on that plan of taking some time, this is gonna take some time. That’s me.”
Riley got used to painting over poor performances — at least publicly.
Meanwhile Venables invoked multiple denunciations of his team after the game — “horrendous,” “atrocious,” “terrible, “we broke down in every way,” “lack of focus,” “at our worst,” “ill-prepared,” and of course, “not good enough.”
Not once, however, did Venables say the Sooners were “close.” He knows the fan base is smarter than that.
That’s not to say they weren’t close. One pass completion and the Sooners have another touchdown. One proper run fit or one less missed tackle and maybe K-State has another punt instead of a long touchdown drive.
Although he readily acknowledges the depth and breadth of his team’s many breakdowns against the Wildcats, Venables has confidence they can be fixed before the Sooners head to Fort Worth this week to take on TCU.
“You know why I have a belief and a positive outlook even through this?” Venables said. “Because I've seen the work, I've seen the buy-in, I've seen the investment, I know how they’ve responded up to this point. And so I believe in these guys. If there wasn't a commitment, a buy-in, all that, I wouldn't be saying there has been.
“Who knows what would have happened had we made some layups? We missed a whole bunch of layups, especially on defense. And then we just got whooped way too often, too. So I'm disappointed in this moment, but I still believe (with) everything I've got in this team and what's still sitting in front of us.
“I’m not sitting in there like, promoting all of our goals are still in front of us, even though they are. Just disappointed. Everybody that's a part of it is disappointed with how it went down tonight. That's not reflective of who this team has been. We'll get better from it, is my expectation.”
Every new coach experiences bumps in the road. Every transition period takes time. Venables and his staff will figure it out.
He and the team and the fans may not want to hear it, but right now, at this moment, the Sooners are not all that "close."
And embracing that truth, rather than spinning it, is a good thing.