Oklahoma football ended the season as hot as any team in the nation last year. However, the Sooners were eliminated from national title consideration by Sept. 17. That’s when OU lost to Ohio State at home.
But since then, the coaching staff has been emphasizing one thing – start fast.
“It’s just like any team, you think you’re high and mighty until you take a loss,” cornerback Jordan Thomas said. “After that loss, everyone wants to get on board. From that day, we’ve jumped on and kept saying ‘can’t start slow, can’t start slow.’”
The Sooners limped out to a 1-2 start in 2016 after losses to Houston and Ohio State. Granted, the Buckeyes finished the year in the College Football Playoff. But if Oklahoma won that game, maybe things would have been different.
“We feel like without that loss, we would have been in the playoff,” edge rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said.
He’s probably right. The Sooners finished the year 9-0 in Big 12 play. It was the first time in the round-robin era that any team went through the conference slate unscathed. Oklahoma capped off a tremendous season with a dominant 35-19 win over Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. The Sooners finished No. 3 in the final coaches poll. They were clearly good enough to play for a national title.
Granted, Oklahoma had roster turnover last season. Opponents outscored Oklahoma 78-47 in the two losses. For comparison, the Sooners scored at least 34 points in every other game. There was a noticeable difference after a few games.
“What changed at that point was the mentality,” Okoronkwo said. “After we got beat, we really came together and decided that we weren’t going to lose anymore.
“The difference between this team and last year is we’re really not going to wait on that loss.”
The coaching staff isn’t waiting to instill that mentality. With every drill or practice, head coach Lincoln Riley is emphasizing getting off to a fast start. The team is trying to ingrain it into their program identity.
“We have to be able to not have to lose two games to realize the competition we’re playing and the level we have to play at,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “It’s something that’s been a turning point for us as a team. We want to start the season hungry and strong and ready to go.”
That mentality will be put to the test right away. After opening against UTEP, the Sooners travel to Columbus, Ohio, to face Ohio State in the Horseshoe. Two weeks later, Oklahoma travels to Baylor. Another two weeks later, it is on to the Red River Rivalry.
Getting off to a strong start – both in individual games and throughout the season – will be critical to winning the Big 12 and competing for a national championship.
“We’re trying to create a culture where we don’t need a loss to motivate us,” Okoronkwo said.