ATLANTA – Oklahoma has a problem at the Football Playoff.
The Sooners, historically and at the same time, are one of the elite programs in college football. But after Saturday’s semifinal beatdown against No. 1 LSU (14-0) in the Peach Bowl, they now have 19 seasons without a national championship, the worst drought in school history since their first title in 1950. And some of the seven losses, like that, they were just ugly.
Almost every year, the OU is leading the November conversation in the title. But whether it’s three straight BCS championship games losses or four consecutive college football game defeats, the Sooners also lose – and sometimes terribly – to win the big game.
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What gives? Why are the companions good enough to reign in the Big 12 Conference, but not good enough to finish the deal for the championship stage?
“We’re still taking steps,” coach Lincoln Riley said Saturday night. “There’s no doubt about it. I mean, putting yourself here four times in five years is – I mean, that’s so difficult, man. It’s so hard to do. So I think we’ve made some big improvements with the program. “
Saturday was undoubtedly a setback to any progress made this year. The Tigers, playing without a single test (Clyde Edwards-Helaire played only a few injuries due to injury), broke Peach Bowl football and football records with 692 total yards and 31 first downs.
Oklahoma has failed in seven straight big-game defeats so far. The Sooners have surpassed when the opponent had superior talent and surpassed when the talent was similar.
“You play very good teams in this Playoff,” Riley said. “And when you don’t play your best ball, good teams will benefit from it.”
Prior to Saturday, this season looked like it could be different. Riley went into this season in need of a complete defensive recovery, and for most of the 13 games, he got it. New defensive coordinator Alex Grinch brought the Sooners behind the defensive abyss of football and created a new mindset. OU finished last season 114th national total defense, but went into the bowl season ranked 24th this year, a 90 point improvement in the NCAA rankings.
But the Grinch rebuilding took a hit in this game without three starters: Defensive end Ronnie Perkins (first in the sacks team) was suspended due to a lack of drug testing. Free safety Delarrin Turner-Yell (second in the team facing) broke the hourglass in practice. Nickelback Brendan Radley-Hiles was excluded in the first quarter after a targeted penalty.
How absent was their absence on Saturday?
“I don’t know how you measure this,” Riley said.
Here’s how: 63-28. The defense of the Sooners, already light on elite talent and slim in the back, probably had no chance at the most productive college football offense. Without these defensive starters, it became a charming mismatch.
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Riley said it was difficult to strike a balance between lamenting the loss of another big game with five touchdowns and celebrating the big picture success of another 12-2 season.
“I’m excited about where we are headed defensively,” Riley said. “I think we’ve just scratched the surface about how good we can be on that side.”
Whether it was Bob Stoops or Riley in the lead of Sooner Schooner, the problem was that the opponent just had more talent. Heisman coach Joe Burrow threw for 403 yards and seven touchdowns in the first half alone. Justin Jefferson dropped nine passes for 186 yards and four touchdowns before the Tigers built a 49-14 halftime lead.
Oklahoma fans had seen it before, but Riley didn’t. His biggest win in his three-year career was just 11 points. Maybe Riley can lean on the Stoops to handle such a disaster.
In 2005 the BCS National Championships – the bad bad 55-19 that hit USC first-graders – was 38-10 in stoppage time. The Trojans had a strong advantage in talent that night and in the orange bowl, and when some Oklahoma players put their tents on, things were bad.
On the two return trips from Oklahoma to Miami, the Sooners (led by Wiseman Sam Bradford) lost 24-14 to a Florida team loaded with NFL players in 2008. Last year, with Heisman winner Kyler Murray, he lost. 45-34 an Alabama team that jumped to a 28-0 lead behind a similarly prepared elite roster.
After restoring Oklahoma glory only in its second season, beating Florida State 13-2 in the 2001 Orange Bowl for the National Championship, Stoops’ first major postseason loss came three years later in the BCS title game against LSU in 2004 LSU Sugar Bowl. Nick Saban and his staff faced a team earlier (led by Heisman winner Jason White) that had been compared to the best teams of all time. But LSU was more natural and played more games in New Orleans, 21-14.
The Sooners had a shot to break the trend two years ago when, led by Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, they built a 17-point lead over Georgia in the 2018 Rose Bowl. But Oklahoma’s defense could not hold on, allowing the Bulldogs to win 54-48 overtime. This OU team characterized an offense that was historically good behind Mayfield and a defense that was historically bad under Mike Stoops.
It was the same formula that the Sooners lost to Alabama last year: Murray made unpleasant signings, but Mike Stoops coordinated the worst defense in school history before being fired in the middle.
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Peach was his own game and had nothing to do with either of the last two playoff losses, neither with a 37-17 loss to Clemson in the 2015 Orange Bowl nor with a Stoops BCS title defeat.
But the common thread is indisputable and has now stretched over 19 years and multiple upheavals since the end of the season: Oklahoma continues to rule the Big 12, but when counting against the LSUs, USCs, Floridas, Clemsons and Alabamas of the world in college football, the conservatives have a problem with the Playoff.
“This program has championship DNA,” Riley said. “We’re finding a way. And we’ll be back.”