NORMAN – Saturday was not a particularly good day for the Oklahoma Sooners.
Sure, there was a 55-40 victory over Kansas. OU beat the Jayhawks for the 14th time in a row, finished the season undefeated at home, sent the senior class off the right way and all that.
But earlier in the day, Notre Dame won. Michigan won. Even Ohio State won. And in the Big 12, West Virginia lost a dramatic showdown at Oklahoma State.
All those results in and of themselves do nothing to injure the Sooners.
But compounded together, the Irish, Wolverines and Buckeyes all winning and the Mountaineers losing do real damage to No. 6-ranked Oklahoma’s already shaky hopes for returning to the four-team College Football Playoff.
There is some debate about West Virginia, which OU faces next Friday in Morgantown. The Mountaineers being in the CFP’s top 10 next week would have gone a long way toward boosting the Sooners’ resume in the selection committee’s eyes.
Now WVU will be out of the top 10 with two losses — three, if OU wins next week.
All of it happened before the Sooners took the field Saturday night, and they took notice.
“Obviously we know the situation,” OU quarterback Kyler Murray said. “We know who has to lose. At the end of the day, we have to win. If we win, we put ourselves in the best position possible so if somebody does lose and we win, we move up. If we’re too focused on that and we slip up, there’s no chance in moving up. It’s best for us to just focus on us.”
At least Texas appears headed to the Big 12 championship game, and maybe the committee will consider an OU victory there — the Sooners avenging their only defeat — an impressive feat.
Murray, for his part, said he’s been waiting for a rematch opportunity ever since Texas beat the Sooners 48-45 back on Oct. 6.
Of course, any playoff talk about Oklahoma — speculation, extrapolation or prognostication of any kind — took a different kind of hit with the Sooners actually on the football field.
This is not a playoff team.
“Defensively, we didn’t tackle at all — really, the whole night,” coach Lincoln Riley said. “And that’s really the story.”
He’s right. Whether he wins OU another Heisman Trophy or finishes second to Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Kyler Murray may very well be college football’s most outstanding player, but even his brilliant magic isn’t enough for Oklahoma to climb out of the depths of an historically bad defense.
KU’s Pooka Williams rushed for 252 yards and three touchdowns, and the Jayhawks compiled 348 of their 528 total yards on the ground.
In Big 12 play, KU’s points, total yards and rushing yards were all season-bests. By a lot.
“We work tackling every day,” said defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill. “We’ll just continue to do that and continue to work hard.”
Will that be enough, in just six days, to fix all of Saturday’s travails?
“We know West Virginia is watching this game and they might have gotten confidence from this,” safety Robert Barnes said. “It’s gonna be a championship-type atmosphere when we go up there. We just have to get the little things fixed to be that championship defense that we’re talking about.”
A Big 12 championship is certainly in the Sooners’ grasp. West Virginia’s defense is vastly improved this season, but Saturday afternoon at Boone Pickens Stadium, the Mountaineers gave up 45 points and 604 yards, including 338 yards and five touchdowns passing to Taylor Cornelius. Oklahoma will put up points at WVU.
But all the guesswork and supposition about which teams need to lose for OU to back into another playoff appearance — forget it.
These Sooners, badly gashed by a one-dimensional Kansas offense, simply are not on the level of Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Michigan or any of football’s first four. Those teams don’t look anything like Oklahoma when they go to make a tackle.
“Body position, eyes in the right spot, run your feet on contact, grab cloth,” defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill said. “The kill shots come. The sure tackle happens more than the ESPN blow-up shots. Just preach to them about making the simple tackle, the basic tackle. Eyes up, bring your feet, those types of things. Cues that tell them.
“It’s hard to fix it during the game.”
Indeed. So OU can forget about the playoffs.
“Look, I know this wasn’t a pretty win. I get that,” Riley said. “But wins are wins. I don’t care who did what in front of us, I don’t care who did what behind us. If we continue to win then we’ll be in good position, and that’s gotta be our focus. Because that’s all we can control right now.”
KU never had a legitimate chance to win Saturday (the Jayhawks did get within one score during the third quarter), but yet outscored the Sooners 23-20 — in the fourth quarter alone.
Murray had his usual otherworldly performance, with 272 yards and two touchdowns passing and 99 yards and three touchdowns rushing, including an electrifying 75-yard burst.
With Trey Sermon out most of the game with an ankle/foot injury, Kennedy Brooks was strong in a leading role, running for 171 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.
But Kansas converted 6-of-12 third downs, 1-of-2 fourth downs and easily made both of its 2-point PAT attempts. Williams and his jitterbug moves pushed Oklahoma’s tackling deficiencies to the surface, and KU receivers found themselves open more frequently against the Sooner secondary than they have all year.
No, this is not a playoff defense.
Just ask the chairman of the selection committee.
“You see a great quarterback, one of the top offenses in the country with a lot of playmakers,” Rob Mullens said last week, “but you also notice, particularly in the last two weeks (now three), that the defense has struggled and that their offense is carrying them. That’s all part of the conversation.”
Now imagine the conversation next week about the Sooners’ performance against Pooka Williams and the KU offense.
KU came into Saturday ranked 89th nationally in scoring defense and 109th in total defense, but had little trouble moving the football against the Sooners.
Mullens and his committee will agree: that was not a playoff performance.
OU can win a shootout next week in Morgantown. The Mountaineers are wounded, though still dangerous, fighting with the pride that comes along with playing in the program’s first Big 12 title game. With Texas knocking off Iowa State on Saturday night in Austin, all WVU needs to get to Arlington on Dec. 1 is to beat the Sooners. Winner take all. Winner gets the ‘Horns.
If OU loses — assuming Texas beats Kansas next week in Lawrence — the Sooners, Mountaineers and Longhorns all would be 7-2 in Big 12 play, and both WVU and UT own victories over OU.
Oklahoma would lose the three-way tiebreaker and would be eliminated from title game contention.
This OU team is certainly good enough to win the Big 12. Winning for a fourth time in Milan-Puskar Stadium next week is certainly within their grasp. And as Big 12 champs, OU could enjoy a nice week in New Orleans as the Big 12’s Sugar Bowl representative and add another trophy to the case and hang another banner.
But Saturday showed Sooner Nation one painful truth: it’s time forget about the playoff.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. 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. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.