Can Alabama stay undefeated? Who will emerge as contenders for the College Football Playoff? Week 11 in college football answers these questions and much more.
NORMAN, Okla. — Ruffin McNeill knows the score — “With the Playoff,” he says, “it’s got to be different now” — which is why every game Oklahoma plays is measured as much by its defensive performance as, well, the actual score.
It’s why McNeill, who assumed duties as the Sooners’ defensive coordinator at midseason after the ouster of Mike Stoops, has been preaching to his players: “FIDO: Forget it and drive on” — which sounds great until you realize just how close the Sooners keep coming, seemingly every week, to careening into a ditch.
Even as No. 6 Oklahoma nipped Oklahoma State 48-47 Saturday night, exhaling only after cornerback Tre Brown knocked down a two-point conversion pass with 63 seconds left, it’s very hard to forget all of the open receivers and missed tackles and touchdowns that led to that critical moment.
“That’s why they call it Bedlam,” Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said. “Lived up to the name. Lived up to the rivalry.”
All true. And however it happens, winning remains the most important thing. But Oklahoma has much higher aspirations. In the chase for the College Football Playoff, the Sooners are playing almost as much against perception as opponents. And on Saturday, the defense lived down to its reputation.
“I’m not satisfied,” Oklahoma linebacker Curtis Bolton said. “We can’t give up 50 points and be a Playoff defense, be a Playoff team. We’ve got to get better. We’re still trying to figure that out.”
Everyone else is trying to figure this out: Can Oklahoma, which might have college football’s best, most powerful offense, be a Playoff team without much defense at all?
“Every goal we want to be in front of us is right there in front of us,” Riley said. “We’ve got to win those games to do that. Sometimes you’ve got to win it when you’re not your best. We know here in the last couple (games), we’re gonna have to find a way to get it to our best.”
But 10 games in, this almost certainly is just who the Sooners are.
The offense is explosive — with Kyler Murray running the show, it’s at least as good as last year’s, and probably better. Saturday, the Sooners had 702 yards (353 rushing, 349 passing). And yet, a sluggish third-quarter stretch — somehow, their first two possessions ended without points — was cause for real concern.
“That’s the standard,” Murray said. “Go score every time you get the ball. Is it impossible to do? No – but it’s pretty damn hard to do.”
It seems pretty darn necessary, too, because Oklahoma’s defense is so routinely porous, games skyrocket into adrenaline-fueled shootouts.
This was Bedlam: Two offenses racing up and down the field, yards coming in chunks, points coming in piles — and several times, boos raining down from the stands, Oklahoma fans unhappy with the continuing defensive deficiency. Oklahoma State had 640 yards and averaged 7.4 yards a play. Taylor Cornelius threw for 501 yards. The Cowboys generated 39 first downs.
“Thirty-nine?” McNeill asked. “That’s a lot.”
But he has an alternate statistical offering:
“Critical stops?” he asked. “If that’s a category. Maybe somebody should look that up: critical stops. Stopping two-point plays is pretty big, I think.”
After Cornelius had thrown a 24-yard touchdown pass to Tylan Wallace on fourth-and-12 with 1:03 left, his two-point pass was late, and low, and behind Wallace. Brown knocked it away, the second consecutive game the Sooners had foiled a two-point attempt late in a shootout.
But keep in mind, Texas Tech last week and Oklahoma State (which is now 5-5, 2-5 in Big 12 play) have run hot and cold this season — but looked suddenly terrific against Oklahoma’s defense.
Cornelius, who’s been the subject of fan consternation, kept finding open receivers for big plays. But he also missed open receivers at times, including Wallace on that two-point try.
What if Oklahoma State had not missed a field goal or — and this was critical — a fourth-quarter extra point? Or what if instead of Cornelius, the Sooners had faced Will Grier?
We’ll find out very soon. After Kansas this weekend, the Sooners play at West Virginia on Nov. 23. They could play again the next week in the Big 12 championship.
Pro tip: Expect shootouts. If you’re a Sooner, worry about coming out on the short end. That’s the first and most pressing concern. But beyond that, the next time someone wonders why the Playoff selection committee chairman often seems to question Oklahoma’s defense, just bring up Bedlam. Matter of fact, Rob Mullens might do it himself.
“I know that’s a part of it now,” McNeill said, “being a complete team and making sure we do our part (defensively). … But at the same time, nothing will override us winning the football game. Rivalry game, nip and tuck, and our guys having to come up and make a play late again. No, it wasn’t pretty by some standards. But for me it was, because we won.
“I really put that over a lot. Maybe that’s not the answer everybody wants to hear.”
What everybody wants to see is a defense that complements, even a little, one of college football’s most potent offenses. Is it fair? The alternate explanation goes something like this:
Those Big 12 offenses, whooooo boy! They’re hard for anyone to stop, ever. This league’s not a meat-grinder; it’s a buzz saw, packed with potent attacks that slice through defenses and stack up points.
“There’s gonna be some tough times in the Big 12,” said Brown, who knocked Cornelius’ two-point pass away. “Everybody has a high-powered offense out here.”
He’s not wrong. And it is abundantly clear that Playoff hopefuls in other leagues are not routinely facing similarly potent offenses. And yes, we know, there was that Rose Bowl for the ages last season, and the lingering sense that if Oklahoma had gotten past Georgia, the Sooners might have beaten last year’s version of Alabama and won the national championship — and then what would the narrative be now?
But you might recall, Georgia won. And if the Bulldogs gave up 48 points and all those yards to Baker Mayfield and company, they scored 54 and piled up a bunch of stats of their own.
In the end, despite its wonderful offense, Oklahoma was felled by its wretched defense.
That did not happen Saturday — just almost. It is certainly possible the Sooners will continue to win shootouts, find their way into the Playoff again, and then who knows?
“I’ll take this team against anybody,” Riley said. “We’re just as capable as we’ve been and I think we all know how close we’ve been.”
But we also know why they haven’t gotten there — and why it’s hard to say if they’ll get the chance this season. If the debate comes down to contenders making their best case to the selection committee, the Sooners have not presented a compelling defense.