In a moment of déjà vu, Lincoln Riley sat atop a College Football Playoff podium and answered a question regarding the word “close.” Reporters wanted to know how “close” the Sooners came to capturing a national title after another excruciating semifinal loss to a SEC champion.
“It’s agonizingly close,” Riley said Saturday. “It is.”
Nobody scored more points against Georgia in 2017 than Oklahoma. Nobody scored more points against Alabama in 2018 than Oklahoma. Nobody but Oklahoma won a Heisman Trophy the last two seasons.
And nobody squandered a championship window quite like the Sooners.
Perhaps that’s harsh. Perhaps that’s short-sighted since the future in Norman under Riley is unquestionably bright. Yet it’s hard to look at Oklahoma’s 45-34 Orange Bowl loss to the Crimson Tide as anything but a brutal defeat.
The Sooners surrendered a combined 99 points between the 2017 Rose Bowl and the 2018 Orange Bowl. Only one other team in playoff history, Alabama in 2014, scored 30-plus points in a semifinal and lost. But the Tide rebounded the next season to win their championship, following that in 2017 with another.
Oklahoma, winners of four straight Big 12 titles, can’t claim a championship appearance.
Statements decrying opportunity lost often drip in hyperbole or lack perspective. But it’s important to remember just how historic Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray were in back-to-back seasons. By the time Mayfield left Oklahoma following the 2017 season, he set new NCAA single-season records for passer efficiency and yards per attempt. Thrice a Heisman finalist, Mayfield redefined a position at Oklahoma already steeped in Heisman history.
There wasn’t supposed to be another Mayfield. Then came Murray …
Murray exploded from college football curiosity to season-changing presence overnight. Mayfield’s year-old records? Murray smashed them, finishing with the highest passer efficiency rating and yards per attempt numbers in college football history. Oklahoma averaged 8.6 yards per play with Murray under center, breaking Hawaii’s 12-year-old yards per attempt record.
The Sooners were the best offense in college football history, scored 34 points in the semifinals against the defending champions and didn’t really ever come close to playing in the playoff finals.
Let that sink in.
It’s probably an unnecessary use of words to describe the ineptitude of Oklahoma’s defense. But consider the Sooners allowed an average of 6.13 yards per play, which ranks 103rd nationally. That’s bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. Had Oklahoma even been average – 65th nationally – they would’ve allowed half a yard fewer per play. That equates to over five extra first downs per game for Oklahoma’s opponents, considering Oklahoma logged 1,036 defensive snaps this season.
And that’s just if the Sooners were average!
Not too long ago (2015) the Sooners fielded the nation’s No. 15 defense in terms of yards per play. For whatever reason – and there are many theories – Oklahoma’s defense fell off a cliff when Riley took over as head coach the next offseason.
That rapid decline cost Oklahoma one, and perhaps two, national championships.
There’s no other way to look at it.
Riley is a massive offensive talent who’ll have plenty of success at Oklahoma. But … his first two seasons will always be viewed within the lens of, “What if?” Dealt a pair of QBs who will have statues in Norman, Riley produced an unmatched offensive juggernaut. Yet the other critical aspect for championships – defense – lagged too far behind.
Oklahoma is close to a national championship. It nearly reached the pinnacle.
And that’s why Riley, leaving Miami, can hardly stomach the feeling. Like any coach, he knows championship opportunities are the rarest of all commodities. His Sooners just wasted two of them.
“Hate that it ends right now,” Riley said. “You’re sick. You feel like you’re there.”