Contrary to the opinion of some, the Oklahoma football season did not come crashing down to the ground with the heart-wrenching loss to Texas in this year’s Red River rivalry game.
The Sooners’ failure against the archrival Longhorns is not fatal and certainly isn’t final. There are still six games to play in the regular season. How the rest of the season goes depends on the fight and pride that exists in the OU locker room and the ability of Lincoln Riley and his coaching staff — now minus one assistant — to turn a proverbial lemon into lemonade as far as regrouping and refocusing the team going forward.
Oklahoma’s chances of making the College Football Playoff as a one-loss team have been significantly reduced, but the door is not completely closed as long as things go the Sooners way from here on out in 2018 and they get some much-needed help along the way. ESPN Analytics gives the Sooners a 14 percent chance of making the Playoff. That is down from 25 percent prior to the loss to Texas.
The same applies to winning the Big 12 crown, which, of course, is the first requirement to remain in consideration for a coveted Playoff spot. Oklahoma is no longer in the driver’s seat, but there is still plenty that could happen to change all that.
The annual game with Texas has always been the biggest game on Oklahoma’s schedule every season, because of the rich tradition and longevity of the rivalry, but that does not necessarily make it the most important or most pivotal. When the Big 12 consisted of a full 12 teams and was structured in two six-team divisions, OU and Texas were both in the South Division. To make it to the Big 12 Championship game, it was necessary to win your division. Because of that, beginning with the 2000 season, the winner of the OU-Texas game generally was the team that came out of the South to play for the conference championship.
That was the general belief around the Big 12, and especially when the Sooners and Longhorns were considered the two best teams in the conference. That certainly was the notion coming out of most of the Red River games prior to 2011, but you still had to take care of business the rest of the season.
The good news for the Sooners and their fans is that three times in recent history, Oklahoma has lost to Texas and still gone on to win the Big 12 championship. The Sooners lost to Texas in 2006, 2008 and 2015, and in two of those years, OU was the higher ranked team entering the game (in 2008 Oklahoma came into the game as the nation’s top-ranked team).
In all three seasons, the loss to Texas was OU’s only conference defeat. In fact, in 2008 the Sooners advanced to the BCS National Championship against Florida, and in 2015 they were the first Big 12 team to represent the conference in the College Football Playoff, facing Clemson.
With a 2-1 record in the conference, the Sooners are currently looking up at unbeaten Texas and West Virginia, both undefeated in league play at 3-0. OU has a game left with West Virginia, a team the Sooners have never lost to in Big 12 play, but it is at West Virginia on the final weekend of the regular season. The Sooners also have difficult upcoming road tests at TCU (Oct. 20) and Texas Tech (Nov. 3). In between time, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Kansas come to Norman, three games that Oklahoma should be favored in.
The Sooners still control a good portion of their own destiny if they are able to win out, but that is going to be a very tall task if they are not able to get better and fast on the defensive side of the ball. They are not going to be able to outscore any of the remaining teams on the schedule if they aren’t able to get off the field on defense.
“We have been as good as anybody in the country the last three years of responding to the very few losses we’ve had,” said Sooner head coach Lincoln Riley in his postgame comments on Saturday.
“That’s absolutely what we expect to do again, but it’s going to take a lot of effort, a lot of hard work.”
There are plenty of important games remaining in the conference for all of the contending teams. The biggest insofar as Oklahoma is concerned is probably the matchup between Texas and West Virginia in Austin on Nov. 3.
Hypothetically, if West Virginia is able to beat Texas and the Sooners are able to do the same when they face the Mountaineers in the final game of the regular season, there is a real chance that there could be a three-way tie at the top of the Big 12 standings, much like what happened in 2008 when OU, Texas and Texas Tech shared the South Division title with identical 7-1 conference records.
Texas, which already has wins over the Sooners and TCU, probably has the best shot of any team to go undefeated in conference play, but that is still a big “if” at this midway point of the season.
Any way you look at it, Lincoln Riley’s group can ill afford to lose any more than two games and still have a chance to play for a fourth consecutive Big 12 championship on Dec. 1. For that to happen, the Sooners are going to have to win at least two of their three remaining road games (at TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia). They should be able to take care of business in the three remaining home games (Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Kansas).
Given that scenario, and the possibility that West Virginia could be undefeated for the regular-season finale with Oklahoma, the game in Morgantown shapes up as the game that will determine who’s in and who’s out as far as the conference championship is concerned.
And how about this? There is a very real possibility of a Red River rematch for the conference championship.
The biggest thing for Oklahoma football now is not to allow a disappointing loss in the traditional biggest game of the season to turn into multiple losses in the more important games to follow.