The 2011 Oklahoma Sooners ended a disappointing season on a high note with a 31-14 win over the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Insight Bowl, but that doesn't mean they don't have a lot to work on this offseason.
OU demonstrated inconsistent and even sloppy play at times en route to losing three games in 2011, and there are several areas that need scrutiny in order for OU to have more success in 2012.
Here are five areas that Oklahoma needs to improve in for 2012.
Heading into the Insight Bowl, Oklahoma gave up 243.6 pass yards for game—83rd nationally. Although they played fairly well against the Hawkeyes in this area, Brent Venables and Co. need to make improvement a priority heading into the offseason.
The Sooners gave up 452 and 485 yards in losses to Texas Tech and Baylor, respectively, and they looked utterly clueless at times in trying to defend the pass.
It's encouraging that the only major change in the defensive starting lineup will likely be Gabe Lynn replacing departing senior Jamell Fleming. So, at least there will be continuity and experience. But for OU to have a chance at greatness next season, it will need to make major strides in pass defense.
Another concern this season was the lack of ball protection by the Sooner offense. OU turned it over 31 times in 13 games, and prior to the Insight Bowl, the Sooners' 0.25 turnover margin put them at 80 in the national rankings.
The Sooners doomed themselves against Oklahoma State by coughing up the ball five times, and they could have left Waco victorious if not for three turnovers against Baylor.
Improvement shouldn't be very difficult: There just needs to be larger emphasis on protecting and being smart with the ball at all times. Bob Stoops and his staff would be wise to stress the importance of ball security to the 2012 Sooners.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this relatively disappointing season for the Sooners was the apparent lack of competitive fire or sense of urgency, most notably in the Texas Tech and Oklahoma State losses.
In general, one could argue that the Sooners seem to expect victory to fall into their lap based on their prestige, and consequently don't show the necessary intensity to assert themselves, which has led to sloppy and lethargic play.
How else could one explain the loss to Texas Tech other than by saying that the Red Raiders simply "wanted it more?" Oklahoma was a heavy favorite at home, and Texas Tech finished 5-7—with a win over Kansas being its only other conference victory.
Hopefully, the Sooners were humbled by this season and will come out in 2012 ready to fight for four quarters every week, understanding they need to show a consistently high level of intensity to win each game.
Co-Offensive Coordinator Josh Heupel
The hurry-up offense seems increasingly hit or miss in Norman: When it works, it is a beautiful thing, but when it fails, it is ugly to watch.
Given its struggles to move the ball consistently at times this season, OU should consider moving away from running the hurry-up all the time. It can still be effective, but sometimes it seems like Oklahoma is out of sync and the rapid pace actually compounds the Sooners' struggles.
This issue goes hand-in-hand with play-calling, which was conservative and unimpressive on too many occasions this year. Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell need to get more creative and add more wrinkles to the playbook somehow. Maybe they can be more aggressive with throwing the ball down the field or utilizing a greater variety of formations. (What happened to the "Diamond" look?)
Kickoff and punt returns can provide a huge boost to a team, and OU lacked strength in these areas this season.
OU averaged 20.5 yards per kick return and 9.2 on punt returns (prior to the Insight Bowl), 80th and 48th in the NCAA, respectively. While production wasn't egregiously lacking in these phases, improvement could make a huge difference.
Experimentation with different returners in the offseason could reveal a skilled returner who could provide a huge spark to the Sooners next season in the return department.