NORMAN — Bob Stoops used to say everyone seemed in an awful hurry to get to the end of the season.
Stoops could never understand the need for preseason polls and midseason predictions and New Year’s Day forecasts. Who’s going to win the conference? Who’s going to win the national championship? Who’s going to win the Heisman?
Stoops was always about being in the here and now, about taking care of your business today and not daydreaming about the future.
“And he’s right about that,” Lincoln Riley said Monday. “Everybody wants to make this conclusion or that conclusion. We have people wanting to crown national champions before the season ever starts. You never know. That’s the beauty of this game. You have to enjoy it and appreciate it every single week.”
What a week to be playing the Kansas Jayhawks.
The Sooners travel to Lawrence this week, scientifically proven to be one of the quietest places on earth on autumn Saturdays, football game or not.
The knock on going to KU isn’t that the football team isn’t any good. It’s not. Kansas is 1-9 overall and 0-7 in Big 12 Conference play, with a win over Southeast Missouri State and nine consecutive losses by an average score of 45-18. The Jayhawks suffered back-to-back shutouts to Iowa State and TCU, and went a stretch of 12 quarters without a touchdown. The Sooners are a 36 ½-point favorite, and it’s not nearly enough.
No, the knock on going to KU is that the fans are so downtrodden over their football team, the place has all the electricity of a cemetery. Players return home from Lawrence describing how they had to manufacture their own energy because nobody was booing them, nobody was dog-cussing them, nobody was making clever signs about their mothers.
Oklahoma is in no danger of losing Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game at Memorial Stadium. None whatsoever. OU will win its 16th consecutive road game, by a wide margin, and Mayfield will finish his career undefeated, 14-0, in true road games.
But with everything the Sooners have on the table — a Big 12 Conference championship, a trip to the College Football Playoff, and quarterback Baker Mayfield’s stopover in New York to pick up the Heisman Trophy — now might not be the best time to face the Jayhawks.
“We haven’t won the Big 12 yet,” Mayfield said Monday. “They’re a Big 12 opponent that’s in the way of our goals so it shouldn’t take any extra motivation. We have to have the same mindset no matter who we’re playing against. That’s kind of been our focus all year — it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we have to rise to the occasion and play well, week in and week out.”
Good answer. Well said. Hit all the high points.
But is anybody buying it?
When this week’s College Football Playoff rankings are revealed on Tuesday night, the Sooners will be in the top four for the first time this season. Since Saturday’s surprisingly easy 38-20 victory over No. 6-ranked TCU, pundits and prognosticators have all but guaranteed OU a spot in the playoff. Thanks to OU’s three top-10 victories (Ohio State, Oklahoma State and TCU), there’s even been plenty of talk — most of it legitimate — that the Sooners make a strong case for No. 1.
Also, Mayfield is everyone’s runaway leader in the Heisman race.
So that’s an awful lot of Sooner talk, and it’s highly improbable the players themselves have avoided hearing it all.
But Riley, that first-year coaching wonder, claims to have the remedy.
“It’s two-fold,” he says. “When everybody around the country or anybody on the outside of our walls are doubting you, we say, ‘Don’t listen to the noise.’ It’s the same way right now. We’ve been through this on both sides this season. I feel like we’re a little bit more equipped to handle it because I feel like we’ve been through this cycle a little bit already this year after we beat Ohio State and had a good run to start the season, we had to deal with it.
“I think, as a team, we know ourselves a little bit better. We know how we handled some of the early success and how we handled it well and things that we need to do better. I think we’ll be more equipped as a team to do it better and understand that nothing’s decided right now. Everybody in the world thinks this or that’s decided. You have to go out and prove it on the field and do it each and every week.”
Stoops used to tell his players to enjoy the ride, soak it in, take stock. There are, after all, only 12 Saturdays each fall that they get to experience a college football game. Play well, you get a 13th. Play well enough, you get a 14th, and maybe even a 15th.
“You can’t take any week for granted,” said safety Steven Parker. “You have to enjoy every week, enjoy the preparation, enjoy the run. That’s exactly what we’ve been doing all year. We’re not going to let anybody else tell us anything else.”
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.