ARLINGTON, Texas — Maybe Lincoln Riley doesn’t have a crystal ball. Maybe he can’t see the future.
Maybe he’s just practical and incredibly patient.
Riley and the Oklahoma Sooners had just tasted bitter defeat — had it crammed down their throat, really, with a bad first half and a crazy rally and a blown call at the end of a 48-41 loss at Kansas State.
It was Oct. 26, and Riley had just finished dressing down his team in the locker room.
OU had been undefeated, had looked to be putting together a potentially historic season with a record-setting offense and a capable defense. But the wheels fell off that day at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
A few minutes into his postgame press conference, Riley faced the inevitable question: how did he feel, in that most disappointing of moments, about his team’s chance to still make the College Football Playoff?
“Just like I have,” Riley said. “Just like I have the last two years. We’ve been through this road. Everybody in the world’s gonna say we’re done. We know how this works. So we know what we’re capable of. We’ve got to all do a lot better — coaches, players, everybody. There’s everything out there left for us, and we know that. We can’t listen to all the noise. We’ve got to do a good job of getting ready for the next one and learn from this. We’ve always responded well when we’ve had a tough one like this, and I would fully expect that this team will do the same.”
Even though this year’s loss came later in the regular season than the last two, Riley told everyone who was willing to listen. And so he was right.
Ever since coming home from the Flint Hills that day, all the Sooners had to do was win. Control the one thing they could control and let the other pieces fall where they may.
Now, all the big pieces have fallen, and they have all fallen in OU’s favor once more.
Friday night’s events in Santa Clara, Calif. — Oregon set down the final piece by beating No. 5-ranked Utah 37-15 in the Pac-12 Championship Game — have kicked down the Sooners’ final potential barrier and made Riley look like ever the prophet.
If things go expected Saturday afternoon in the SEC Championship game — that is, if No. 2 LSU handles No. 4 Georgia — then Oklahoma will be back in the playoff.
If they do what Riley suggested, that is, and win one more game.
The No. 6 Sooners meet No. 7 Baylor on Saturday morning in the Big 12 Conference championship game at AT&T Stadium, and the winner — either OU or BU (OU is a 9-point favorite) — figures to be playoff bound if Georgia doesn’t score a massive upset Saturday afternoon.
If the Bulldogs do upset undefeated LSU, it’s unlikely the Tigers would fall outside the Final Four, though it’s conceivable.
If Georgia does lose, the Big 12’s champion would surely get the needed boost from a top-10 victory and conference title.
In the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis, No. 1 Ohio State meets No. 8 Wisconsin at 7 p.m. Saturday night. The undefeated Buckeyes also could likely withstand an upset loss and still stay in the top four.
And in the ACC championship game in Charlotte, undefeated and defending national champ Clemson plays No. 23 Virginia Saturday night at 7:30. The No. 3-ranked Tigers are a 29-point favorite, and also could take a loss and probably still make the playoff.
That puts a 12-1 Big 12 champion into the field — likely at No. 4 if the three undefeated favorites win, though things could get interesting if one or more of them loses.
Nine days after the loss to Kansas State, during Riley’s weekly press conference following an open date, he reiterated the importance of staying focused on winning and not on external factors like the College Football Playoff rankings, or the tendencies of the selection committee, or any wins or losses elsewhere around the country.
“Zero,” he said. “Just win. You win games, you get a chance to win your league, you win this league then things take care of themselves. We’ve seen that as much as anybody over the last few years. We’ve got a lot of great opportunities coming up. We’ve got to take care of ourselves right now and try to win every single game we possibly can. After that, it’s out of our control. We’ve got just got to go win.
“Go look at where we were ranked in previous years after we lost the game. There’s so much left to happen. I know this. You keep winning, and you win your league championship, if you keep winning and doing the things that you can win, and play to your potential as a team, those things tend to work themselves out. We’ve seen it. Not trying to hide from it, I just know, it does not matter right now. It really doesn’t. Only one that matters is the one at the very end.”
A little help in Atlanta is still needed, but Riley’s prophecy has come true: all Oklahoma has to do is keep winning — one more game, anyway.
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. 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 co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander, and the Locked oN Sooners podcast on the Locked oN Podcast Network. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.