NORMAN — Oklahoma got just the matchup it wanted in the College Football Playoff: the big, bad SEC.
Sunday morning, the CFP selection committee announced its pairings, and OU could have two opportunities to take down college football’s bully.
The Sooners (12-1) meet Southeastern Conference champ Georgia (12-1) on New Year’s Day in the College Football Playoff semifinals, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Win there, and the National Championship Game in Atlanta on Jan. 8 could put OU in a showdown with SEC West runner-up Alabama (the 11-1 Crimson Tide faces defending national champ, No. 1 seed and 12-1 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl later in the day on Jan. 1).
If recent history is any indicator, OU’s 2017 postseason could produce the program’s eighth national championship.
Just last year, Oklahoma thrashed Auburn 35-19 in the Sugar Bowl. In the two seasons before that, the Sooners swept a home-and-home series with Tennessee, 34-10 in Norman and 31-24 in double overtime in Knoxville. And the year before that, OU whipped Alabama 45-31 in the Sugar Bowl.
“To me, at this point, it’s not about conference versus conference,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said Sunday. “It’s about this really good team from Oklahoma going up against a really good team in Georgia.”
The Sooners are 12-1 and champs of the Big 12 Conference after Saturday’s 41-17 takedown of TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game. The Bulldogs also are 12-1, having won the SEC with Saturday’s 28-7 victory over Auburn.
Both teams are led by newbies: Riley is in his first season following Sooner legend Bob Stoops’ retirement in June, and Georgia coach Kirby Smart (Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator in that 2014 Sugar Bowl) is in his second season after the Bulldogs fired popular coach Mark Richt.
It’s early, but Riley is impressed with Georgia’s defense (fourth nationally in total yards, third in points allowed), and Smart is wowed by Oklahoma’s offense (first in the nation in total yards, fourth in points scored).
Someone else who suddenly has a newfound respect for the Sooner defense: the College Football Playoff selection committee, who ranked OU fifth in its initial rankings on Oct. 31 because it had concerns about the Oklahoma defense. The Sooners were fifth again the following week after a 62-52 victory over Oklahoma State, but stood fourth in back-to-back rankings, then moved to third last week and climbed to second this week.
Oklahoma in its final four games limited TCU to 20 points and 424 yards, Kansas to 3 points and 155 yards, West Virginia to 31 points and 387 yards, and TCU to 17 points and 317 yards, and the committee took notice.
“In the last few games,” said selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt, “they’ve made progress and strides in the eyes of the selection committee on the defensive side of the ball, and are very deserving to be ranked No. 2 in the final ranking of this year’s College Football Playoff selection.”
Hocutt said the 13-person selection committee is looking “for that complete team” with the realization that no team is perfect.
OU’s total defense ranking this season is 57th nationally (384.8 yards per game), while the other three playoff teams are ranked far higher: Alabama is No. 2 (257.8), Georgia is No. 4 (270.9) and Clemson is No. 6 (283.3).
Offensively, however, the Sooners are ranked No. 1 (583.3 yards per game), while the others lag behind: Alabama is 20th (465.4), Clemson is 23rd (457.9) and Georgia is 37th (433.6).
“We’ve talked a lot as a selection committee about Oklahoma’s offensive power,” Hocutt said. “One of the most impressive offenses in the country. They’re scoring a lot of points. At the same time, defensively, they haven’t performed defensively as strong statistically as they have on the offensive side of the ball, but the thing that Oklahoma has done is built an impressive body of work with a 12-1 record.”
There are a couple of interesting twists to OU-Georgia:
- Georgia has 807 all-time wins (11th in FBS history), while Oklahoma has 884 (seventh nationally), but they have never faced off before.
- The teams, then led by Barry Switzer and Vince Dooley, were co-plaintiffs in a 1984 landmark lawsuit against the NCAA (NCAA v. Oklahoma Board of Regents), in which the United States Supreme Court found the NCAA in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and eventually deregulated college football on television.
- Stoops visited Smart’s Georgia camp for an inspirational team talk in October, and Smart brought his offensive staff to Norman for a one-day tutorial last spring.
Stoops’ visit with the Bulldogs might have been a bit too productive: his positive affirmation was one that any competitor can turn to for strength and inspiration.
“The biggest thing (Stoops said to the team) is the wind blows higher at the top,” Smart said in October. “And as you’re climbing a mountain, it gets steeper and steeper. You can’t let the outside world affect or control the outcome of your season. You’ve got to control that with the leadership on the team. That comes from working each day.”
Riley, on the other hand, said the spring session in Norman was more generic.
“So hopefully,” Riley said, “I gave them some really, really terrible stuff.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.