It has been a talking point of Oklahoma fans all throughout the 2021 season: head coach Lincoln Riley’s insistence that the Sooners are indeed “close” to playing at the level they aspire to.
While many were skeptical of that sentiment when he was referring to the Oklahoma offense early in the year, it is hard to argue with where the Sooners stand now offensively and the noticeable improvement — albeit with a different quarterback under center.
Now, after the OU defense has gone through a significant rough patch, that conversation has shifted to the other side of the ball.
For the most part, Oklahoma has not yet put together a complete performance against an FBS opponent through 2021’s first eight games.
And now, Riley knows the time is running out on the Sooners turning the corner.
“I think our guys know what we need to do,” Riley said after the game Saturday. “It’s time for us to start closing the gaps and playing more consistent. That is what it is. I think we’re still a very capable football team, there’s no question. Excited to have a chance to get some guys back and I think that’s got to be our spark right here, is the combination of getting some of the guys back; we’re obviously pretty thin in a lot of areas today. We’ve got to get guys back. The guys that are playing have got to play at a high level, we’ve got to coach them at a high level. Times where we’re not playing well, it’s close.
“But we’re tired of being close. We’ve got to push it over the edge.”
So the question now becomes just how close is this Oklahoma team in reality?
One way or another, the Sooners are 8-0 for the first time since 2004. It is extremely difficult to get this far into the season still unscathed, so that deserves recognition.
But, the schedule has been relatively light this year with the conference slate largely back-loaded to have the biggest games late in the season.
Also, it is hard not to wonder if a bit of complacency is seeping into a team that likely has a feeling that no matter how the first three quarters go, they will find a way to win it late.
Can lessons be fully learned without taking hits in the loss column? This is the biggest question that will have to be answered in the weeks ahead.
While it is inarguable that the Oklahoma defense has had some very impressive stretches of play (see the second half of the Red River Showdown), there are some habits forming that are alarming.
Take this play late in the fourth quarter with Kansas holding ball in the red zone for example. Soft coverage allows a receiver to emerge wide open for an easy touchdown in a critical spot.
Is this something that can be easily fixed? Why is this happening in the first place, especially this late in the season?
Another disturbing play here: late in the third quarter, the Jayhawks nearly run the ball in for a touchdown from 10 yards out.
The effort on this play is questionable, to say the least.
Why is this happening? Can anyone explain it?
It’s not all on the defense either.
While the offense has been undeniably a lot better the last few weeks with upgraded offensive line play, there are still head-scratching moments regularly.
Take this play with the Sooners looking for a key score late in the third quarter when the pulling blockers, in this case Tyrese Robinson and Chris Murray, just flat don’t pick up a man which has the run stuffed for no gain.
These are cherry-picked examples, of course, but there are a plethora of others you can find in any Oklahoma game.
Riley and Alex Grinch have been pleading for consistency from their players all season and still have yet to get it. Work often, fantastic play is being followed by some bothersome sequences throughout nearly every game this year.
Under Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma has always found a way to be playing its best ball by the end of the year, having not lost a single game in the month of November in the Riley era.
But, that always came after an early season stumble. This time, Oklahoma has gotten away with some of these bad habits.
So, revisiting the earlier question, can lessons fully be learned without taking a hit in the loss column?
Time will tell on that front, but time is also not on the Sooners’ side, as Riley said on Saturday.
A loss at this point would likely be severely damaging to any playoff hopes. A hiccup can’t be absorbed.
Oklahoma is 8-0 for the first time in nearly two decades and deserves a heap of credit for that.
But, just how “close” are they to being a serious contender?
Want to join the discussion? Click here to become a member of the AllSooners message board community today!
Follow AllSooners on Twitter to stay up to date on all the latest OU news.