The Oklahoma Sooners are back in the College Football Playoff.
The Sooners (12-1) climbed to No. 4 in the final playoff rankings and will play No. 1 seed Alabama (13-0) on Dec. 29 in the Orange Bowl, the playoff committee announced Sunday morning.
After going 11-1 in the regular season, OU’s 37-29 victory over Texas on Saturday in the Big 12 Championship Game was the final piece of the playoff puzzle.
“Certainly, we wanted to be in this playoff and feeling like we have a team that’s worthy of it, a team that can go make a run,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said Sunday in an interview on ESPN. “Probably the most exciting thing for us is we feel like our best ball is still ahead of us.”
The Sooners beat out No. 5 Georgia (11-2), which lost to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, and No. 6 Ohio State (12-1), which defeated Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game.
No. 2 Clemson (13-0) and No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) will play the other CFP semifinal in the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 29. Kickoff times will be announced later Sunday. The winners of the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl meet in the College Football Playoff title game on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif.
“We spent considerable time on it as you might expect,” selection committee chairman Rob Mullens said on ESPN after Sunday’s announcement. “In the end, one-loss conference champion, with their only loss being on a netural field, close loss to a ranked team, which they avenged in their conference championship.
“As we’ve talked about the last several weeks, obviously, a dynamic offense, and their defense has made big plays in the last couple of weeks.”
Mullens said “there was strong debate” about the 4-5-6 teams, which were virtually tied. “There was even division in the room.
“We’re looking at full body of work. We understand the charges to get the four best teams. I can assure you that every combination was discussed in the room.
“In this one, the one-loss conference champion carried the day.”
Riley has great respect for Alabama.
“Well, they’re a great team,” he told ESPN’s Rece Davis. “I mean, that’s pretty obvious. They’ve had a great run, an historic run in college football over the last several years with coach Saban. And I know this team is fantastic. We’ll be looking forward to the challenge, though. That’s what these games should be like: different champions from all over the country, great programs that have such strong histories going against each other, great individual matchups all across the field. I mean, that’s what the whole College Football Playoff is all about and why our sport is one of the best on earth.”
The Orange Bowl likely pits the top two vote-getters in the upcoming Heisman Trophy balloting: Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray and Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa.
“They’re a pretty dynamic group,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Oklahoma on ESPN. “They’ve got a lot of weapons, a lot of explosive plays. We played against (Murray) a little bit when he was at A&M and he is a very dynamic guy in terms of his athletic ability, his quickness, his ability to make plays with his feet. And he’s turned into a really, really efficient passer who has good skill guys to make good plays to go along with the rest of their weapons.”
Saban said Tagovailoa would have a surgical procedure to repair a high ankle sprain he suffered in the SEC Championship Game, after which backup Jalen Hurts came in and rallied the Crimson Tide to victory.
“To scope those things, it helps the healing process,” Saban said. “Most of the guys that have had this done, it’s about a two-week deal. So hopefully by the time we start practicing again, Tua will be back on the field and ready to go.”
OU is also dealing with the threat of a significant injury. Wideout Marquise Brown, an All-America candidate, suffered what Riley termed a “lower leg injury” in the victory over Texas.
“Had a couple tests last night, a few more here today that are really gonna try to figure out the overall extent of it, then our medical team will put together a plan based on what they find,” Riley said Sunday. “We’re hopeful, but I’m sure we’ll learn more here in the next few days. Certainly would love to have him, but as we proved yesterday, we’ve got other guys that are more than capable of stepping up if he’s not ready.”
The Orange Bowl, of course, is Oklahoma’s postseason home away from home. The Sooners have played in the Miami game 19 times and have a 12-7 record there. That includes the 2008-09 BCS National Championship game (a 24-14 loss to Florida), the 2004-05 BCS National Championship Game (a 55-19 loss to USC) and the 2000-01 BCS National Championship Game, a 13-2 win over Florida State and the Sooners’ only national title in the last 33 seasons).
That also includes the 1962-63 Orange Bowl, a 17-0 loss to Bear Bryant, Joe Namath and the Crimson Tide. That was Bud Wilkinson’s last bowl game.
The teams also met in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2013 season, a 45-31 OU victory.
Alabama and Oklahoma also faced off in the 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston, a game that ended in a 24-24 tie on Bruce Derr’s late field goal for the Sooners.
OU leads the all-time series with ‘Bama 3-1-1, including regular-season victories in 2002 in Norman (37-27) and 2003 in Tuscaloosa (20-13).