OU football: No longer Big 12 favorites, Sooners, Bears meet with new goals for the season

Nov. 3—This wasn't the way the season was supposed to go for either of the two preseason favorites in the Big 12.

A few months ago, Baylor and Oklahoma were picked first and second respectively by league coaches in the conference preseason standings. It was the first time the Bears have ever been picked to win the Big 12 and the first time in six years that the top spot was not occupied by the Sooners.

But as the Sooners prepare to host Baylor this weekend, much of the expected national relevance will be gone from the game. With both teams entering Saturday's meeting with a 5-3 record, the Sooners and Bears find themselves fighting just to qualify for the postseason in the final weeks of the season.

For the Sooners, the struggles started at the beginning of Big 12 play with three straight losses, including two in games without starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel. For the Bears, it started in the second game of the season, a 26-20 overtime loss to BYU.

Despite both teams entering the game on a recent upswing, defensive miscues have been among the biggest reasons for concern — a surprising trend from two programs that are led by two of the top defensive minds in the conference.

"This is going to be a great, great challenge," OU head coach Brent Venables said. "... I think they're top 30 in the country in total defense. We've got another big challenge this week. But at the end of the day, it's just going to be about us and just getting better."

The Bears are on a two-game winning streak and have stepped up on the defensive side of the ball following a two-game losing streak to Oklahoma State and West Virginia. The Mountaineers put up 43 points and over 500 yards of total offense against Baylor.

West Virginia gained 217 of those yards on the ground, which is uncharacteristic of a Aranda-led team. They bounced back to hold Kansas to 56 yards rushing on 22 attempts and had five interceptions in last week's win over Texas Tech.

The Bears' defense still ranks 29th in total defense, 22nd in rushing defense and 24th in team passing efficiency defense.

The two head coaches are familiar with each other. Venables said he's spoken to him over the phone several times over the years, but their closest interactions have come on the recruiting trail.

"First of all, great person," Venables said. "He's just a good dude and really smart. Really good teacher. They offered one of my sons, Jake, at LSU. and so we started to get to know each other that way. And we never ended up taking a trip there. His momma won the recruiting battle so Dave didn't make the cut."

Oklahoma's defensive unit has also been taking steps in the right direction in recent weeks. Those steps just haven't come as quickly as they have for the Bears.

Riding a two-game winning streak, the Sooners are coming off their strongest defensive performance since the start of conference play against Iowa State. The Cyclones were held to 66 yards rushing on 27 attempts in the game and were picked off three times by an active Oklahoma secondary.

Still, the Sooners gave up 430 yards of total offense and 42 points to Kansas two games ago and were out-gained in total offense, 374-332, against Iowa State last week.

"Those losses kind of helped us out a lot," cornerback Woodi Washington said. "(I) think guys were playing to not make a mistake in those earlier games. Now we've kind of figured it out. Go play fast. If you make a mistake, just make it fast. At the end of the day we make it fast. Not making slow mistakes and it'll be easy for us."

The loser of Saturday's game will have three games remaining and would need to win one more in order to earn bowl eligibility. After facing the Bears, the Sooners will face West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.

Baylor will have the tougher slate, facing Kansas State, TCU and Texas to finish off the season.