Oklahoma football: Were Sooners Playoff worthy at season’s end?

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 28: Brian Asamoah #24 of the Oklahoma Sooners takes the field prior to facing the LSU Tigers at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 28, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 28: Brian Asamoah #24 of the Oklahoma Sooners takes the field prior to facing the LSU Tigers at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 28, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images) /

For all practical purposes, the Oklahoma football run to the College Football Playoff ended with a loss in Game 2 of the 2020 season.

Of course, one loss does not eliminate a team’s chances of becoming one of the final four college football teams left standing when the final CFP rankings come out, but in the Sooners’ case, that one loss fatally turned into two.

Oklahoma uncharacteristically began this COVID-disrupted college football season with back-to-back conference losses.

The way the Sooners were playing at the end of this season, it’s hard to imagine how they could lose — at home, no less — to a Kansas State team that showed a lot of spunk early on, starting out 4-0 in conference play, including the stunning win over the Oklahoma. But perhaps equally stunning, those same Wildcats went into an 0-5 tailspin to close out the rest of the season.

The reason the Sooners’ lost that game to Kansas State is simple: The young Sooners had not learned how to keep your foot on the neck of an opponent when they’re down and finish out games.

Oklahoma held a 35-14 lead over Kansas State with two minutes to go in the third quarter and ended up giving up 21 unanswered points in a stunning 38-35 loss. A similar second-half breakdown cost the Sooners for a second straight week at Iowa State. OU let a 17-13 halftime lead evaporate, and the Cyclones took control in the second half and held on for a 37-30 win over the visiting Sooners.

Looking back, the Iowa State win was not as devastating to Oklahoma’s national or conference title hopes as the Kansas State loss was.

In and of itself, the Iowa State loss was not considered a bad loss. The Cyclones were nationally ranked most of the season and finished 10th in the final College Football Playoff rankings. Plus, Sooners were able to avenge the Iowa State loss in winning the Big 12 Championship.

The Sooners should not have lost at home to Kansas State — no way, no how — but they did, and because of that, the loss at Iowa State was the final nail in the coffin insofar as Oklahoma’s chances to make this season’s College Football Playoff.

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Oklahoma has been the master in the College Football Playoff era at finding ways to defy the odds and make it into the four-team tournament, albeit often as a controversial choice. The Sooners have made the Playoff field four times in the now eight years that the CFP format has been in existence. Three of those times was as the No. 4 seed.

In 2015, Oklahoma edged out Big Ten runner-up Iowa for the final spot. The Sooners did not make the Playoff in 2016, but were back for a second appearance in 2018. Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray and the Sooners were awarded the final spot over SEC runner-up Georgia and Big Ten champion Ohio State.

In 2019, three weeks before the final Playoff rankings were released, Oklahoma sat in the No. 9 spot in the rankings with five teams ahead of them to make it into the Playoff field. OU did not control its own destiny, even if it was to win out and capture the Big 12 crown for a fifth straight season. The Sooners needed help, and a lot of it.

And then, some Sooner Magic entered the picture, and the dominoes magically started to fall. Oregon and Penn State, two of the teams, ahead of Oklahoma lost the next week, and the Sooners moved up to No. 7. The week the penultimate CFP rankings came out, No. 5 Alabama lost to Auburn, and OU moved up one, to No. 6, and was not within striking distance.

Then on championship week, the final cards fell in place: No, 5 Utah lost to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship and No, 4 Georgia lost to No, 1 LSU in the SEC Championship. You couldn’t have scripted it any better if you were a Sooner Fan. The Sooners moved into the final Playoff spot and earned a date with eventual champion LSU in the national semifinals.

Even though Oklahoma did not make it back this year for a fourth straight Playoff appearance, the Sooners’ late-season charge was reminiscent of what we’ve seen from them every season since Lincoln Riley arrived in Norman in 2015.

The two years that the Sooners were not Playoff bound during this span (2016 and 2020), they still managed to finish well within striking distance and make it to a New Year’s Six bowl. OU was No. 7 in the final Playoff rankings in 2016 and climbed all the way to No. 6 this past season, jumping up four spots in the final 2020 rankings.

Texas A&M, No. 5 in the final 2020 CFP rankings, and undefeated No. 8 Cincinnati, have the best arguments, if you ask me, for not making it into the final four this season, but what about Oklahoma at No. 6?

I believe OU was playing about as well as anybody in the country at the end of this season, save possibly Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson. I think the Sooners would beat Texas A&M and Cincinnati, especially the way the OU defense played over the final five games of the season.

But what about Notre Dame, the No. 4 seed in this year’s national championship hunt?

Is Oklahoma better than Notre Dame at this stage of the season?

Rivals.com national recruiting director Mike Farrell and national recruiting analyst Adam Gorney seem to think so. They both believe the Sooners would beat Notre Dame if the two teams played right now.

Said Farrell: “The way this (OU) defense is playing, the power of the running game and the weapons that Spencer Rattler has lead me to believe they (Oklahoma) would not only beat Notre Dame but roll them.”

Gorney’s take: “This (Oklahoma) is a completely different team right now. The defense has been outstanding, and this is one of the top four teams in college football right now.”

The simulation website whatifsports.com concurs with the assessment of the two Rivals writers.

We ran five simulations of a matchup between the 2020 Oklahoma football team and the 2020 Fighting Irish and the Sooners won all five by no fewer that 14 points. In fact, the average score of the five games was 45-21 in favor of Oklahoma.

All of this is in good fun, of course. The reality is Oklahoma missed out on the Playoff party this season. But if you liked what you saw in the way the Sooners finished the season, wait until next season.

I would expect Oklahoma to be a preseason 2021 College Football Playoff pick.