The Oklahoma football loss to Iowa State – at home, no less – placed the Sooners on the outside looking in as far as this season’s College Football Playoff is concerned.
With five regular season games remaining plus a potential conference championship game, the question is: Does Oklahoma have what it takes to win out and win a third straight Big 12 crown, an outcome that would all but assure them a place in the 2017 College Football Playoff?
How quickly things can and do change in the fickle world of college football that many of us fanatical types live and die by every weekend in the fall. At this stage of the college season, almost two-thirds the way through, about the only sure thing appears to be the rolling tide of top-ranked Alabama, undefeated and well on its way to yet another Playoff appearance, which would be its fourth in as many years as the CFP has been in existence.
Two weeks into the 2017 season, Oklahoma was the second-ranked team in the country in the Associated Press Poll after the Sooners’ dominating disposal of previously No. 2 Ohio State on the Buckeyes’ home field. All of a sudden the college football writers and broadcast pundits were penciling in the Sooners for one of the four Playoff spots. Alabama, Clemson and USC were the other top-four teams at that point.
Now only Alabama remains among the top four teams in the land. In fact, Ohio State is back in front of Oklahoma in the weekly national rankings, checking in at No. 6, despite losing decidedly to the Sooners in Week 2.
Next Tuesday is the date that the first College Football Playoff standings of the season will be released, and the race for one of the four Playoff spots will begin in earnest.
Oklahoma will probably be ranked in the top 10 of the initial CFP standings largely because of the Sooners signature win over highly ranked Ohio State. But unless something totally unexpected happens this weekend – and we are talking about college football, so anything is certainly possible – Oklahoma will not be the highest-ranked team out of the Big 12.
TCU is undefeated, ranked in one of the prestigious top-four positions in the AP and Coaches Polls, and a slight favorite at the present time to win the Big 12 championship this season. Assuming TCU is able to get by the resurgent Iowa State Cyclones this weekend, it is probably a sure bet that the Horned Frogs will be in one of the catbird seats in Week 1 of the Playoff rankings.
At present, any team in one of the five major conferences – the so-called Power Five – with one or no losses still has a legitimate shot to make the Playoff. Oklahoma is in that category. After losing to Iowa State (which is looking less like a bad loss with the Cyclones breaking into the AP Top 25 this week), however, the Sooners have very little margin for error the rest of the way, and the schedule is far from easy over the remaining five regular-season games.
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Over the next three weeks, Oklahoma will play two ranked Big 12 teams. The Sooners will be at 11th-ranked Oklahoma State a week from this Saturday, and the weekend after that they will host Big 12-leading TCU. Oklahoma’s Playoff run, let alone the Sooners conference title chances, will become much clearer after those back-to-back games.
If the Sooners play like they did at Ohio State they should win at Oklahoma State and be able to put down TCU in Norman. That is a giant “if,” though, given the schizophrenic nature of Oklahoma football in recent games.
The Sooners clearly aren’t going to be able to beat high-powered Oklahoma State in a Bedlam Series game or TCU by playing their best for only half of the game. If that were the case, you can chalk up blowout defeats for the Sooners and pretty much seal up a 5-3 Big 12 record at best for first-year head coach Lincoln Riley.
That, my friends, will send the Sooners home to pack and prepare for a bowl game against a so-so opponent early in the postseason schedule. A big boomer bummer for a season that began with so much promise.
I prefer to look on the bright side, though. Quarterback Baker Mayfield and his head coach both say that this Oklahoma team thrives when its back is to the wall – not that they want that to be their starting point. The Sooners have the talent to overcome the rough waters ahead of them, but they are going to have to play much better on defense against some of the best offensive teams in the country in Oklahoma State, TCU and West Virginia. And that doesn’t factor in another high-powered offense the Oklahoma must face in Texas Tech, the Sooners’ opponent this weekend.
The OU defense is going to have to get third-down stops and be able to get off the field so the Sooner offense can take over. And speaking of the magic man Mayfield and the OU offense, it can not afford to get behind the chains early in downs and lapse into periods of inconsistency, especially when going up against the country’s11th-best defensive unit in TCU and the third best against the run.
It will be a dogfight to get by Oklahoma State and TCU, but even if the Sooners are fortunate enough to accomplish that, they can plan on seeing one of these two teams one more time in the Big 12 Championship, which will be played Dec. 2 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. And we all know how difficult it is to beat a team twice in one season.
According to the ESPN Football Power Index, Oklahoma has an 88 percent chance of beating Texas Tech, a 66 percent chance of beating TCU and an 89 percent chance of defeating West Virginia at home in the regular-season finale, but the game with Oklahoma State is rated a 50/50 toss up, as of this week.
That brings us full circle and back to the central question: Can the Sooners run the remaining gauntlet and make it into this year’s College Football Playoff? Absolutely they can. But will they?
The next few weeks will tell us where things stand but, more importantly, whether we can continue asking the question.