Oklahoma football: No other way to look at 2020 than a success

Dec 19, 2020; Arlington, Texas, USA; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley lifts the Big 12 Championship trophy after the game against the Iowa State Cyclones at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 19, 2020; Arlington, Texas, USA; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley lifts the Big 12 Championship trophy after the game against the Iowa State Cyclones at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /

There was a lot not to like about 2020, but not about the Oklahoma football program.

On Monday, college football crowned its national champion, which was an enormous feat of its own  making considering that five months ago we didn’t know if there would even be a college football season.

The Sooners finished the season on a super high note with a resounding 55-20 victory in the Cotton Bowl over a depleted but still very talented Florida team.

But it was a long road back from a 1-2 start to the season for an OU team that was ranked No. 3 in the country in the preseason. The Sooners were considered a legitimate College Football Playoff contender by a number of experts, despite going with a new starting quarterback who had thrown just 11 college passes before this season.

Oklahoma Sooners Football
Oklahoma Sooners Football /

Oklahoma Sooners Football

Warning bells started sounding after Oklahoma managed to blow a 21-point third-quarter lead at home against Kansas State and lose 38-35. The Sooners fell 15 spots in the Associated Press poll, from No. 3 to 18th, after that shocking loss.

Little did Lincoln Riley know at the time, but things were about to get much worse. The following week at Iowa State, the Sooners let a 30-23 advantage midway through the fourth quarter get away, surrendering 14 unanswered points over the final seven minutes resulting in a 37-30 loss and back-to-back defeats to begin Big 12 play.

The Oklahoma football journey from riches to rags and back again

So, in a little over a week’s time, Oklahoma had gone from the No. 3 team in the country to out of the top-25 rankings. At this point, the Sooners’ prospects for winning a sixth straight Big 12 championship were looking slim to none and chances for a fourth straight College Playoff appearance were completely out of the picture.

The Red River rivalry game with Texas was the fourth game on the Sooners schedule and, in retrospect, was the spark Oklahoma needed to turn its season around.

OU had what appeared to be a commanding 14-point lead late into the fourth quarter, only to watch that advantage evaporate, similar to what had happened in the Sooners previous two games.

Texas scored two touchdowns in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter, sending the game to overtime and striking fear in the hearts of all Oklahoma fans didn’t want to believe that their team could lose three consecutive conference games. After all, that hadn’t happened since the year before Bob Stoops came on board when John Blake lost five consecutive games in 1998.

It took three overtimes, but Spencer Rattler and the Sooners managed to survive with a win when Tre Brown picked off a pass by Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger in the end zone.

That proved to be just the jolt of confidence Oklahoma needed as the Sooners preceded to run the table, winning all five of their remaining regular-season games, and each by double digits.

Oklahoma parlayed its six-game winning streak into what two months earlier seemed like an improbable rematch with Iowa State in the Big 12 Championship game and an  opportunity to avenge one of its two losses. This time around, the Sooners never trailed, winning 27-21 and successfully defending their conference supremacy for a sixth consecutive year.

OU’s win over TCU, two weeks following the Red River victory was enough for the AP voters to return the Sooners to the top 25 at No. 24.

A pair of 62-point offensive games against Texas Tech and Kansas advanced OU to 18th in the AP poll, and that was where the Sooners landed when the initial College Football Playoff rankings were issued for the 2020 season.

When the resurgent Sooners hung a 28-point defeat on a one-loss and 14th-ranked Oklahoma State squad, they jumped forward five spots, to 13th, in the AP poll.

It’s not how you start but how you finish that matters

When the penultimate CFP rankings came out in early December, Oklahoma was up to No. 10, and the Sooners surprised quite a few people when the Playoff selection committee moved them up four more spots, into the No. 6 slot, after the Big 12 Championship win.

The late-season climb up the Playoff rankings was reminiscent of how the Sooners have finished the season in each of the past three years. In both 2018 and 2019, Oklahoma put together late-season winning streaks that were enough to earn the Big 12 champions one of the coveted four Playoff spots to vie for the national championship.

That didn’t happen this year, but OU still finished 6th in all three major polls (Playoff, AP and the Coaches Poll). The Sooners actually ended up 4th in the final ESPN College Football Power Index, and the way-too-early top-25 rankings for next season have them starting out in the top four.

Given how things started out for Lincoln Riley’s team this past season, there’s really no way look back on it as anything less than a success and clearly a grand finish. They did as well as any team could have done considering the hole they uncharacteristically dug for themselves in the early going.

There’s plenty of truth to the adage, “It’s not how you start but how you finish that matters most,” but let’s face it, it’s better to start out strong and finish the same way.

Oklahoma outgained its opponents 284 to 94 in the first half this season. That margin was considerably less over the final 30 minutes. Once the Sooners got it into their collective heads that winning football games requires a full effort for a full 60 minutes, there was no stopping this team.