ARLINGTON, Texas -- With the program's first SEC schedule looming on the horizon, Brent Venables is aware as anybody the Oklahoma standard of success in the Sooners' final season of Big 12 membership.
Fanfare accompanied Venables' December 2021 homecoming to the program where spent more than a decade as an assistant from 1999-2011, but that initial optimism waned after a 6-7 finish to his 2022 debut. The bitter taste of the program's first losing season since 1998 has Venables and the Sooners eager to show what they learned from last year's adversity.
"It goes without saying we fell well below our expectations and our standards at Oklahoma [last year]," Venables said Thursday as the Sooners embarked on their final Big 12 Media Days appearance. "But man, we learned and grew a lot as a football program."
Beyond a defense that was second to last in the Big 12 (allowing 461 yards allowed per game), the team's inability to finish was a trend that Venables' staff was able to see clearly by the year's end. Oklahoma's 0-5 record in one-score games last year told a much larger story.
"In five of the seven losses, it goes down to the last minute, two minutes of the game in the fourth quarter with a chance to win," Venables said. "We've looked long and hard in the off-season, since January, of what we need to do to become a more efficient football team. We've looked at every single part of our program, how we can improve and get better. Nothing ever stays the same."
Incumbent Sooners starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel said as agonizing as the team's mark in close contests was, there's no better source of motivation.
"We learned the difference between winning and losing is very small and can come down to a couple of plays," Gabriel said. "We used that as huge point of emphasis in the offseason in dialing into the little details and being better in situational football."
Despite placing just one player on the preseason all-conference list (defensive lineman Ethan Downs), Venables has the talent at his disposal to oversee a resurgence. According to the 247Sports Composite, Oklahoma owned the ninth most-talented roster in the country last year, and signed a 2023 class -- transfers and recruits combined -- that ranks sixth nationally. Newcomers range from touted signees such as five-star quarterback Jackson Arnold to immediate impact players such as Indiana transfer linebacker Dasan McCullough. The latter joins a room that returns the Big 12's leading tackler in Danny Stutsman.
Even with the much-needed self-evaluation and change the program has been through since last year's disappointment, it's Venables' day-to-day consistency that keeps his players bought in.
"The way he acts today is the way he acts tomorrow, and the way he acts tomorrow is the same way he acted three years ago," Stutsman said. "That's the kind of guy I like to play for. I love him to death and I would do anything for him."
Venables hasn't just sold the locker room, the administration -- all the way up to Sooners athletic director Joe Castiglione -- remain in lockstep with his long-term vision for the program.
"Brent's energy and passion -- and that is daily -- is contagious," Castiglione told CBS Sports. "It definitely spreads across the entire program. I really appreciate him on so many different levels, but one of the things is his discipline toward the vision he has of building the program. Other people may do it a little differently, and that's fine. We know what we can do to help Oklahoma be successful, and we are doing that."
And if success rapidly returns for the Sooners in 2023? True to form, Venables says he won't stop pushing for the type of change he does welcome: daily improvement.
"Even if you go 15-1 or 13-0, you're always asking how you can be better," Venables said. "I've spent my whole life as football coach. Even through success, you're always looking at ways to get better. Having a never satisfied-attitude is never going to change for me."