Ranking the toughest schedules in OU football history

Ranking the toughest schedules in OU football history

Using ESPN's way-too-early top 25, the Sooners' first SEC will include games against five ranked opponents. What if those rankings match reality?

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Mar 7, 2024, 6:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Mar 7, 2024, 6:00am CST

Brent Venables met with the media on Wednesday afternoon to launch OU’s spring practice, the Sooners’ first preparing for the Southeastern Conference.

The 2024 season offers perhaps the easiest non-conference schedule in OU history — Temple, Houston, Tulane and Maine, all on Owen Field — but at least one of the toughest league schedules the Sooners ever have faced.

Let’s see. Using ESPN’s way-too-early-top-25 rankings, the Sooners play No. 4 Texas in Dallas, host No. 9 Alabama and No. 16 Tennessee, and play at No. 6 Ole Miss and No. 7 Missouri. That’s an Action Five that certainly will baptize the Sooners in the SEC.

Who knows if those rankings will splash down anywhere near reality? But if they do, that indeed is a thicket of cactus needles.

OU scheduling historically has undergone different eras. In the glory years of the 1950s, Bud Wilkinson’s teams played a litany of non-conference heavyweights, like Notre Dame and Texas, but the Big Seven was not all that competitive. That began changing in the 1960s.

The early 1970s probably were the heyday of schedules, with the Big Eight roaring and dumbed-down non-conference still a thing of the future.

The Big Eight dipped severely in the 1980s, then easier non-conference schedules arrived in the 1990s, the switch to the Big 12 and, well, you know most of that.

So in honor of what could be facing in 2024, let’s rank the toughest overall schedules in Sooner history:

5. 1969: Tailback Steve Owens won the Heisman Trophy, despite a schedule that included four opponents that finished in the top 16 of the AP poll — No. 1 Texas, No. 6 Missouri, No. 11 Nebraska and No. 16 Colorado. Chuck Fairbanks’ Sooners finished 6-4, and Fairbanks found himself on the hot seat. OU also played Wisconsin, Pittsburgh and a revived Kansas State team, led by Lynn Dickey.

4. 1968: In that 10-game era, the Sooners played Texas (which finished No. 3 in the AP poll), Notre Dame (No. 5), Kansas (No. 7) and Missouri (No. 9). OU also played Nebraska and North Carolina State, a couple of solid teams that finished 6-4. Chuck Fairbanks’ Sooners finished 8-3 and tied Kansas for the Big Eight title.

3. 1995: In their final season in the Big Eight, and Howard Schnellenberger’s only season coaching OU, the Sooners played five opponents that finished in the top 14 of the AP poll — No. 1 Nebraska, No. 3 Colorado, No. 7 Kansas State, No. 9 Kansas and No. 14 Texas. Schnellenberger’s team went 5-5-1 and he was fired, for a variety of issues.

2. 1973: The Sooners played 11 regular-season games. Five came against teams that finished in the top 18 of the AP poll — No. 7 Nebraska, No. 8 Southern Cal, No. 14 Texas, No. 17 Missouri and No. 18 Kansas. The non-conference schedule also included a rebuilding Baylor and a pre-Schnellenberger Miami. Remarkably, the Sooners went 10-0-1.

1. 1994: Gary Gibbs’ final season crashed with a 6-6 record, but he had good reason for it — five games against teams that finished in the AP top 25. No. 1 Nebraska, No. 3 Colorado, No. 8 Texas A&M, No. 19 Kansas State and No. 25 Texas. And the non-conference schedule also included Texas Tech and Syracuse. They don’t make schedules like that anymore.

Two of the teams on this list got their coach fired. I don’t think Venables will suffer the same fate, but he needs to fatten up in non-conference because the SEC assignments are brutal.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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