It's been a rough year for Oklahoma.
It was a year that started way too early in the courtroom and then things went south on the field. No one expected the Sooners to have more than a loss or two, much less four of them. Yet that's what happened, and now the Sooners find themselves in the Russell Athletic Bowl against Clemson.
“It's bowl season and in my opinion it's the greatest time of the year,” quarterback Trevor Knight said. “It's not really where we want to be or where anyone wants to be in the country unless you're one of those top four teams. It's the top defense in the country by a lot of accounts and that's a challenge for us and we're looking forward to that.”
A matchup between the Tigers and Sooners is compelling for many reasons—more if there weren't a combined seven losses on the teams' records—but the biggest storyline here is Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables and his No. 1 defense.
Venables left Oklahoma after the 2011 season after being on Bob Stoops' staff since Stoops arrived in Norman in 1999. He insists it had nothing to do with the return of Mike Stoops and everything to do with the opportunity to coach at Clemson. The close ties between Venables and Bob Stoops won't make this an easy matchup.
“We were both kind of hoping it didn't come to that, but in this world, too, or in this coaching life, the longer you're in it, it's bound to happen more and more,” Stoops said.
The Sooners may be excited for the bowl game itself and the festivities that come with bowl week, but facing the Clemson defense will be a big challenge, one that is not getting overlooked.
“When you look at Clemson, they're a great team,” offensive lineman Adam Shead said. “We're definitely not taking them lightly. They have a great defense, No. 1 in the country in total defense. Can't say enough about them so we're definitely not taking them lightly.”
Stoops said generally, the Tigers run the same defense that Venables ran with the Sooners in Norman. Stoops guessed it was one of the best defenses the Sooners have faced this season, thanks in large part to the experience on the unit.
“I think that's always maybe something that maybe gets a little overlooked when people just talk about talent,” Stoops said. “But usually when the guys are older, it makes a difference, too, and they've got a lot of older players that are really good.”
Venables is not so far gone that the current roster doesn't remember how things were when he was still in Norman.
“I remember when I was on scout team, and then going against him the next year he was always crazy,” offensive lineman Daryl Williams said. “He was smart, though, you know, always sending something our way. So, it's going to be a tough challenge.”
But as juicy as the matchup with the Sooners' former defensive coordinator is, the OU offense is focused on the Tigers' defense itself and couldn't be more complimentary of what Clemson has done this year on that side of the ball.
“It's as good a front seven as we've faced all year if not the best front seven we've faced all year,” center Ty Darlington said. “It's filled with experienced players and athletic players and a lot of players that are going to be NFL players.”
Despite the focus on Clemson's talent and accomplishments, the Sooners aren't backing down from the challenge.
“Especially up front, we're very confident in our abilities and where we rank among the nation's best as far as offensive lines go,” Darlington said. “So it's going to be a great challenge for us. We're looking forward to the challenge of playing one of the best defenses and having the chance to prove who we are.”
The Sooners have been limited by lesser defenses than Clemson this season, so moving the ball against the Tigers won't be easy. But Oklahoma is ready to end the season on a bright note and it may just come at the expense of a familiar face.