Oklahoma football: Will Sooners defy the critics by finishing strong and on top?

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 /

Some college football experts are still holding on to the belief that somehow, someway the Oklahoma football Sooners will find their way into the College Football Playoff this season.

Because that’s what the Sooners do, right? And they are, after all, a perfect 8-0 two-thirds the way through the 2021 season.

Oklahoma has participated in four of the seven College Football Playoffs, and three of those times, the Sooners were the final team to make the cut and the No. 4 seed. And, of course, what followed was the typical media debate of why Oklahoma and not some other deserving team.

To be fair, the Sooners have added fuel to the discussion because they have come away empty in all four CFP appearances.

Once again this season, the Sooners were singled out as a prime contender to make the College Football Playoff. That was largely on the basis of their strong finish in 2020, winning their last eight consecutive games, including a resounding 55-20 win over 10th-ranked Florida in the New Year’s Six Cotton Bowl Classic. But also because of returning starting quarterback Spencer Rattler, a preseason All-American and on everyone’s list early on as a leading candidate for college football’s top individual honor, the Heisman Trophy.

Then the 2021 season started with the games actually getting underway, and Oklahoma delivered lackluster performances in its first two games against mediocre FBS opponents Tulane and Nebraska. The Sooners won both games, but by no more than seven points.

Oklahoma defeated its first three Big 12 opponents by three, six and seven points, and the early-season troubles, at first thought to be an aberration, quickly evolved into a disturbing trend.

“We’ve had eight chances. We’ve done it eight times. We have the longest winning streak in the country…The sky is not falling. Don’t count us out just yet.” — OU head coach Lincoln Riley

Then in OU’s sixth game of the season, the annual Red River border war with Texas, the Sooners’ struggles hit a crisis point. Texas rolled off 28 virtually uncontested first-quarter points and led Oklahoma 38-20 at the half.

Late in the second half against the Longhorns, head coach Lincoln Riley made a potential season-saving decision, replacing Rattler with highly-touted true freshman Caleb Williams. We all know what happened next with the miraculous second-half Sooner comeback, literally seizing victory from the jaws of defeat.

Williams made his first career start the following week as Oklahoma hosted TCU. The Sooner offense continued to roll behind the new OU quarterback, but the Sooner defense gave up 529 yards of offense and 346 passing yards, further exposing what has been an endemic problem for Oklahoma on defense for a number of years.

And then came the Sooners’ near-disastrous showing against lowly Kansas. The Jayhawks, 38-point underdogs to No. 3-ranked Oklahoma, came within one highly controversial fourth-down play of potentially handing the Sooners what would have been not only the biggest upset of this college football season, but perhaps of all-time.

The irony of all this is that Oklahoma has won every game it has played this season. The 8-0 Sooners are one of just nine teams at the FBS level that remain undefeated. But, outside of perhaps Texas,  OU has not played the best teams in the Big 12 yet.

College football pundits and analysts give the Sooners credit for finding ways to win and remaining unbeaten despite their offensive and defensive inconsistencies, but with the first of the 2021 College Football Playoff rankings set to be revealed next Tuesday, they have serious doubts that Oklahoma is a legitimate playoff contender.

The Sooners’ “body of work,” as the CFP selection committee likes to say, thus far has portrayed them more as pretenders than contenders. They’ll have every chance to disprove that perception, though, when they face three ranked Big 12 opponents over consecutive weeks in November, and two of those games are on the road (at No. 16 Baylor and No. 15 Oklahoma State).

Lincoln Riley said again on Tuesday, during his regular weekly press briefing, that when he looks at the tape after the games, with a calmer head and with all of the game-time emotion out of it:

"“We’re so close. Like we’re agonizingly close,” he said. “The mistakes, the things that have hurt us, for the most part have been our errors. So you feel like it’s very correctible.”"

The OU coach has been saying that for the better part of the last eight weeks. I know in his heart he truly believes that — or wants to, anyway. Time is running terribly short, though. You have to wonder if there is enough time to correct the mistakes that Riley and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch keep referring to before having to go toe to toe against the three best defensive teams in the Big 12.

Between Nov. 13 and Nov. 27, Oklahoma will face Baylor (6-1, 3-1), Iowa State (5-2, 3-1) and Oklahoma State (6-1, 3-1), perhaps the most difficult finishing schedule in college football. And if OU is still standing tall after going through that difficult three-game gauntlet, they will play in the Big 12 Championship, most likely against one of those three teams.

That represents both the good and the bad about the Sooners’ credibility as one of the top four teams in the country. If Oklahoma makes it to Sunday, Dec. 3 with an undefeated 12-0 record, there will be no further debate about the Sooners’ legitimacy. And even if they finish the regular season with a single loss and win a seventh Big 12 crown, they should make it in to the College Football Playoff.

On the other hand, if Oklahoma were to lose one or more of those games, the results will speak for themselves

Plenty of big “ifs,” for sure. Riley also acknowledges, no matter who you are, having four starters out on defense is going to impact your performance. That’s been an issue plaguing the Sooners the past few weeks, but Riley expects to have three, if not all four, back for the critical November push.

It’s also worth noting Oklahoma’s historic success in the month of November. The Sooners are 23-0 in November games since the 2014 season. That statistic has absolutely no bearing on the November games this season, but it does underscore Oklahoma’s track record in finishing out seasons strong when the games count the most.

“I know this,” Riley said to reporters this week, “if you keep winning, then things tend to work themselves out. We’ve had eight chances. We’ve done it eight times. We have the longest winning streak in the country (16 games). The sky is not falling. Don’t write us off just yet.”