ARLINGTON — Other than the fact that you couldn’t find a decent corny dog on the premises Saturday, the most obvious difference between the original and Texas-OU Too was the Sooners actually played a little defense at JerryWorld.
Same dazzling Kyler Murray, on Heisman watch.
Same gritty Sam Ehlinger.
Just enough Sooner defense, which, until Saturday, couldn’t stop a check.
Or at least that was the storyline immediately after Oklahoma’s 39-27 win in front of 83,114, the largest crowd ever for a conference championship game anywhere. Combined with the fact that the Big 12 title game afforded the fifth-ranked Sooners an opportunity to make their final College Football Playoff pitch, it set up as a banner day for Bob Bowlsby’s bunch.
At least until a wild SEC title game nearly rendered the rest of the day pretty much moot.
Had top-ranked Alabama not come back for a 35-28 win over fourth-ranked Georgia, the committee would have included the Bulldogs as well as the Crimson Tide in the CFP.
And the Big 12 would have been screwed.
The last time, in the CFP’s 2014 debut, the circumstances made it seem a bit personal. The way it looked, the members set up TCU by ranking the Frogs third in the next-to-last rankings, then dropped them to sixth after a 52-point win. Ohio State got in instead after a 59-0 wipeout of Wisconsin, sending the Big 12 in search of the elusive 13th data point.
Bowlsby revisited the ’14 scenario before Saturday’s game. The advice they received, as well as the data, indicated the league needed a conference title game to get in the discussion. Of course, the prospect of additional revenue didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, either.
Next thing you knew, the league got a waiver allowing it to play a title game without divisions. What it meant was the distinct possibility, as exemplified Saturday, that the Big 12 could cannibalize its CFP chances if Texas beat Oklahoma again.
Texas seemed up to it for most of the first half until Murray asserted himself. Passing for 379 yards and three touchdowns, fitting passes in tight windows, Murray made a convincing Heisman case. Hard to imagine his final football season doesn’t end with the greatest of player trophies and enough hardware to last him in his new baseball life.
But as good as Murray was, the storyline pushed in the wake of Oklahoma’s win was the discovery of its defense. Just when a Sooner fumble seemed to give Texas life late, Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator, Ruffin McNeill, dialed up a corner blitz by Tre Brown, resulting in a safety. That and an interception by Tre Norwood ended Texas’ bid for an improbable sweep of the Sooners.
Considering Oklahoma went into Saturday ranked 111th in total defense, behind a school that fired its coach (Texas Tech) and the fifth-place team in the MAC West (Ball State), it was a positive sign, anyway. Better than giving up 40 to Kansas.
Also a better visual for the committee than a 59-56 win over West Virginia.
So after all the carping from yours truly about a Big 12 title game, it looked like this one actually did the Big 12 some good.
“I think that’s right,” Bowlsby said on the field after the game, confetti filling the air around him. “It’s interesting that they’ve been maligned through the year, yet it’s the defense that rises up and wins the game for ’em today.”
Just the same, Oklahoma’s offense, No. 1 in the nation and the most prolific in school history, pushes its candidacy. What the Sooners and Big 12 must hope is that it’s enough to make its case. Bowlsby compared the potential discussion to his days on the basketball selection committee. On a close call, he’d ask any coach in the room which team he’d least like to play. And you can guess which one he thinks it is.
“Because of the way they play and the volatility of their offense,” Bowlsby said. “They’re just a very, very talented offensive football team.”
Still, Bowlsby’s been in this place before. He watched his co-champs finish fifth and sixth in ’14. Crazy things happen. Asked before the game if an Oklahoma win over Texas would make him feel “comfortable” about the Sooners’ chances, he said, “No.” Even immediately after the game, he seemed wary.
“I’m more confident,” he said, “but I’m not ready to declare victory.”
Frankly, I’m not even convinced Georgia is out. The Big 12 finally got some mileage from its 13th data point Saturday. The problem is, the SEC’s comes with an exclamation point, too.
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