NORMAN — It appears Oklahoma’s climb to the College Football Playoff just got a little steeper.
The Sooners did ascend in this week’s CFP rankings — but only one spot, to No. 9.
As it stands now, that would not appear to be enough to elevate OU into the top four when the final rankings are revealed on Dec. 8. Oklahoma is going to need lots of chaos to get back to the playoff.
With the potential for three games remaining, Oklahoma is coming off an impressive rally on Saturday night at Baylor — which dropped just one spot in the rankings from No. 13 to No. 14 — in what became a 34-31 road victory.
Meanwhile, three teams ahead of the Sooners — No. 5 Alabama, No. 6 Oregon and No. 7 Utah — all delivered convincing wins over teams with losing records and all maintained over the Sooners a lead that is looking more and more insurmountable.
I asked selection committee chairman Rob Mullens if, in fact, beating a ranked team was better than beating a team with a losing record. Sounds obvious, I know, but in this light, it seems a fair question.
“Yes, the committee is aware when you beat a ranked team, for sure,” Mullens said.
And still, Oklahoma has beaten a ranked team two weeks in a row now — Iowa State is No. 22, Baylor is No. 14 — and the Sooners are exactly where they were two weeks ago: ranked No. 9.
Mullens said what the committee used to call game control “is not a metric” by which teams are assessed.
(He also said the committee realized that Alabama — and others, presumably — won their game by a comfortable margin, while also saying again that the committee doesn’t incentivize margin of victory.)
For Sooner fans, it probably all feels like little more than spin, narrative or agenda.
Two teams in front of OU (No. 5 Alabama and No. 7 Utah) have zero victories over ranked teams this season, and another (No. 6 Oregon) has one victory over a ranked team (new No. 23 USC).
“That’s why we watch the games,” Mullens said. “That’s why the staff gives us the resources and tools to be able to watch all these games. So that when you come in fully prepared, we know who they’re playing, we know the records of who they’re playing, and we get to watch the games and see how they play out.”
What Mullens and the committee isn’t saying is that the Sooners lost to Kansas State at the wrong time (contenders who lose in November shouldn’t count on being able to climb their way back into the top four) and, frankly, they just aren’t blowing out their opponents.
It’s that last part that probably has the committee just as confounded about the Sooners as it does their head coach, their defensive coordinator and their players.
OU’s bipolar nature the last three games more than likely leaves them in limbo with the selection committee.
- Oklahoma fell behind by 25 at Kansas State, then rallied to within a controversial onside kick in the final seconds.
- The Sooners built a 21-point fourth-quarter lead at home against Iowa State, then nearly collapsed as the Cyclones got within a controversial 2-point conversion.
- OU fell behind by 25 again at Baylor, then shut the Bears out in the second half and rallied to win the game.
What do you do with a team that can’t figure out in the span of 60 minutes if it’s the best team in the country or the worst team in the Big 12?
In a four-quarter span against Iowa State and Baylor — third and fourth against the Cyclones, first and second against the Bears — OU was outscored 58-17.
But in the other four quarters of those two games, the Sooners outscored the opponent 59-14.
That’s just schizophrenic, even against ranked opponents, and it probably engenders little confidence on the committee’s part that Oklahoma is worthy of returning to the playoff.
“I think the answer to those things is, we always want to jump to some sort of conclusions,” said OU coach Lincoln Riley. “The answer is usually somewhere in the middle. I thought we were a fraction off in the first half against Baylor. I give Baylor a lot of credit. They made some really, really nice plays on, really, all three sides of the ball against us. Against good competition. It’s not like we were just God awful in the first half, and on the flip side of that, we weren’t the greatest team ever in the second half. It was just – the margins are that thin, and we were able to get some momentum and clean up some of those small little mistakes and that was enough for the difference.”
Contrary to Riley’s assessment, this Oklahoma team doesn’t miss by just a little, and they don’t get great again by just tweaking a couple things.
The last three weeks, things have been either a disaster or they’ve been nearly perfect.
Riley said the first half against Iowa State might have been the best stretch the Sooners have played since he got here from East Carolina. The same could be said of the second half at Baylor. Complementary football doesn’t get any better than it did in those two games.
Yet, the other quarters these last two weeks, the offense looked lost and the defense looked very 2018ish.
“At the end of the day it’s just football,” said defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. “Nothing is ever going to go your way the whole time. It’s just adversity. You know, you’ve got to deal with it. We’ve all got to deal with it. On the football field, even though we’re a good football team we’re still gonna have to deal with it just like every team around the country. So it’s the response we give. I felt like we got the right response Saturday, felt like we got the right response from it against Iowa State, and against Kansas State I felt like we got the right response it was just a little too late.”
“I think that’s just the nature of this game,” said linebacker Kenneth Murray. “It’s always gonna be ups and downs within a football game. Us as a team, we’re not immune to anything. We’re not immune to them making a good play because they have good players too. It’s all about that mindset. It’s all about that mentality when we’re at battle, when we’re out there fighting as a team, it’s that belief that we always have, that constant faith that we always have to just continue to keep going no matter how things are going at that moment in time. I think that’s what we did a phenomenal job on this Saturday versus Baylor and we end up coming out with a victory.”
Grinch said it’s frustrating to think about how his defense played the first half against Baylor when he thinks the second half reveals how good they can be.
“It is,” he said. “And I didn’t sugar coat it. It’s gross.”
Quarterback Jalen Hurts has been the posterchild for these extremes.
On Saturday night in Waco, he had three turnovers in the first 2 ½ quarters. But in the last 2 ½ quarters, he had four touchdowns. In the first half against Iowa State, he had five touchdowns. But in the fourth quarter, he gave away an impossibly bad interception that set the Cyclones up to score the winning points.
“I think we have to acknowledge the growth we’ve shown,” Hurts said. “You talk about in the Kansas State game, same situation, had opportunity to come back, it was what it was. This (game against Baylor), I think we all showed fight and persevered through it.”
Hurts, of course, isn’t the only one playing to extremes. His offensive line, his receivers, and his defense all have played markedly well in the good stretches shockingly poor in the bad stretches.
“At one point, coach Grinch mentioned about the K-State game, how we fought in the second half to come back even though we didn’t get the outcome we wanted,” said defensive end Ronnie Perkins. “But it definitely instilled some confidence in us that if we do keep fighting through the adversity, we can eventually get outcome we want, and I feel like Saturday that’s what we did.”
“I think Iowa State and Kansas State, especially, taught us a lot of lessons about who we are as a team,” said Murray. “I feel like Kansas State, you know, we were down and things weren’t going our way and we fought our way back and we end up being pretty much one play away from getting right back into that game.
“That kinda opened our eyes to what we could do as a team, and going down early versus Baylor, we knew that as long as we kept the faith, continued to believe, that we were gonna eventually fight our way back into the game, and continued to fight and it’ll worked out in our favor.”
For the playoff committee, though, that fight apparently has its limits.
Winning, it seems, is not enough.
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.
Week 13 CFP Rankings