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John E. Hoover: Sooners’ third straight Big 12 title is a sweet one — and may be a reminder of even sweeter rewards

John E. Hoover: Sooners’ third straight Big 12 title is a sweet one — and may be a reminder of even sweeter rewards

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, left, holds his Most Outstanding Player trophy as he celebrates with head coach Lincoln Riley, right, and the team after their 41-17 win in the Big 12 Conference championship NCAA college football game against TCU on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

ARLINGTON, Texas — One at Boone Pickens Stadium. One at Owen Field.

And now one at Jerry World.

That’s where Oklahoma’s three consecutive Big 12 Conference championships have been won — and a lot of flags to plant.

“Hell, I don’t care how we do it,” said first-year coach Lincoln Riley, “as long as we win it. I’ll take all three of ‘em.”

He took this year’s title Saturday in a 41-17 blowout of TCU where the Dallas Cowboys play, AT&T Stadium, and afterward there were confetti cannons and placards and 64,104 screaming fans, a big ol’, Big 12 party that harkened back to the league’s glory days when the Big 12’s champion often forged ahead to greater battles.

National championship battles.

The Big 12 has been on hard times lately, and bringing back the championship game for the first time since 2010 — and unveiling a brand new trophy — may serve as a reminder of what the league is capable of when its best teams are really good.

The Big 12 sent its winner on to the BCS championship games seven times during the 2000s — 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2009 — and was in the November hunt twice more, but when the league contracted through conference realignment in 2010 and 2011, the Big 12’s championship days were over.

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) and wide receiver Marquise Brown (5) celebrate hooking up for a long pass and touchdown score in the second half of the Big 12 Conference championship NCAA college football game against TCU on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The Sooners made the College Football Playoff in 2015 — and were unceremoniously blown out 37-17 — but three seasons of the playoff, that’s been it.

Now, this Oklahoma team looks different. This team looks championship-worthy.

In improving to 12-1, the Sooners “imposed their will,” on a tough and talented TCU team (10-3), Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson said.

That included a defense that yielded just 317 yards and 17 points — 95 yards and zero points in the second half — and just 83 yards rushing, and an offense that continued to ride Mayfield’s Heisman Trophy momentum into the postseason.

Mayfield threw four touchdowns and completed 15-of-23 passes for 243 yards with no interceptions. His yardage total was a season-low, but he tacked on 65 yards rushing, including a career-long 54-yard dash.

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) stands on the sideline with tight end Mark Andrews, right, as they watch play against TCU in the second half of the Big 12 Conference championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Mayfield had just 119 yards passing at halftime (including 5- and 6-yard TD throws to tight end Mark Andrews — the second of which blazed between five TCU defenders), but he hit Mykel Jones for a 55-yard catch-and-run on the first play of the second half and then two offensive snaps later delivered a 52-yard bomb to Marquise Brown to extend a seven-point halftime lead to 38-17.

Rodney Anderson led the Sooners with 93 yards rushing, and Trey Sermon added 63. Andrews paced OU with seven catches for 58 yards, while Brown had 87 receiving yards.

Linebacker Caleb Kelly turned the tide early with an 18-yard touchdown return of Kyle Hicks’ fumble on TCU’s first play from scrimmage. That gave the Sooners a 10-0 lead on their way to an early 17-0 advantage, but the Horned Frogs fought back to within 24-17 at halftime.

The second half became a coronation of domination.

It was Kelly who helped remind the College Football Playoff selection committee that, hey, maybe the Sooners can play the kind of defense that would make them worthy of a spot in the Final Four. Every week, Kelly said, players have heard committee chairman Kirby Hocutt express concerns about the level of defense played in the Big 12 in general and by the Sooners in particular.

This week, the Final Four announcement goes off at 11 a.m. on ESPN, and the Sooners will be watching. Again.

“Every week they say the same thing,” Kelly said. “That’s why every week we have to play with a chip on our shoulder and be an angry defense. That’s what coach Lincoln (Riley) always says. You have to play angry because they don’t respect you. … Every week we say, ‘They don’t respect you; they still don’t respect you.’

“Every week we have to keep proving people wrong.”

Already wielding the nation’s best offense, having a capable defense puts Oklahoma in legitimate contention for a national championship.

And after Saturday’s performance, these Sooners are beginning look a little like some of the OU teams Bob Stoops commanded — not quite to that level of defense, but certainly trending upward.

Having Stoops on hand for the postgame celebration and nearby for the past five months was something Riley won’t forget.

“I’ve definitely leaned on him,” Riley said. “I’d be crazy not to. I’ve told you guys what he means to me and how, you know, this happening is, in large part, due to him, his unselfishness.

“A lot of guys would be sitting there like him today saying, ‘Man, that could have been me,’ or maybe bitter about it. And he may have been the happiest person out there on the field celebrating with us. That’s just him. He’s a special guy. I’ve leaned on him for advice and loved having him around and thankful we had the opportunity to have him around the program.”

Riley just became the fifth coach in FBS history to win at least 12 games in his first season as a head coach. That isn’t lost on him, either. The Sooners’ post-Stoops transition has been more than smooth. Riley has taken the firm foundation laid by Stoops and actually elevated it, or at least enhanced it.

“Things are just a little bit different at Oklahoma,” Riley said. “How many other places does the head coach that just retired is still around and still so involved and it’s just so smooth? It’s just different. It’s a different place. We’re built different.”

Stoops used to remind people that most of his Big 12 championships were accomplished with different quarterbacks. Sam Bradford in 2008 became the first of Stoops’ seven conference title-winning QBs to lead his team to multiple Big 12 titles.

But these last three championships were all accomplished with one quarterback: Mayfield. And this one was special.

“Having the big screen and the crowd still there made it a lot of fun,” Mayfield said. “But I wouldn’t say that’s what made it. I think what made this one was the fact that it’s our third one in a row and we all … came back with the mindset that this was our first goal and we’ve worked so hard to get here. It’s been a year-long process, and it feels great when it happens.”

“You know,” Riley said, “they’ve all been different.

“The first one was on the road,” Riley said. “A lot of us were just kind of getting our start. Obo was just starting to play some, Baker’s first year starting, Orlando (Brown)’s first year starting, Steven (Parker) had played as a freshman.

“That was awesome, doing it in Stillwater, and … last year, celebrating at home was great. And this year at the neutral site was great, too.”

“It was special winning one at home,” said linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, “and it was special watching the confetti, being under the big screen. But, it’s always the next one.”

______

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.

Oklahoma linebacker Caleb Kelly (19) and others douse head coach Lincoln Riley, wearing visor, in the final seconds of their Big 12 Conference championship NCAA college football game against TCU on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Arlington, Texas. Oklahoma won 41-17. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

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Hoover wrote for the Tulsa World for 24 years before joining The Franchise, where he's now co-host of "Further Review" on The Franchise Tulsa (weekdays 12-3, fm107.9/am1270) . In his time at the World, Hoover won numerous writing and reporting awards, including in 2011 National Beat Writer of the Year from the Associated Press Sports Editors for his work covering the Oklahoma Sooners. Hoover also covered Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Oral Roberts and the NFL as a beat writer. From 2012 to 2016, Hoover was the World's lead sports columnist. As a columnist, Hoover won national awards in 2012 and 2014 from the National Athletic Trainers Association for reporting on sports medicine and in 2015 won first place in sports columns from the Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists. After receiving a journalism degree from East Central University, Hoover worked at newspapers in Ada, Okmulgee, Tahlequah and Waynesville, Mo. He played football at Ada High School and grew up in North Pole, Alaska. Hoover and his family live in Broken Arrow.

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