Clinging to a 59-56 lead and facing fourth down, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley wasn’t about to give the ball back to West Virginia with a kick or punt. Instead, he sent college football’s most electric quarterback back on the field, and Kyler Murray delivered a first-down completion to salt away yet another Big 12 thriller.
“The way the game was going, I just didn’t want to give them the ball back,” Riley said afterward. “If we don’t get it and we hold them, we’re good. If they’re able to score, we’d (have) time with the ball back. … I wanted us to be the last ones with the ball, either way. And that was the only way to guarantee it.”
Welcome to the Big 12, where seemingly every meaningful game goes down to the wire, and where having the ball last is the only way to guarantee victory.
The Big 12 — with its rugged nine-game conference schedule, unmatched parity top-to-bottom and a championship game that always pits its two best teams against one another — might be bad for the business of placing a team in the College Football Playoff, even if the 11-1 Sooners are potentially one more win away. But no league tops the Big 12 in entertainment … or last-second finishes, offensive eruptions, elite quarterbacks, unpredictable upsets and, well, overwhelmed defenses.
“Quite literally, any Saturday anybody can beat anybody,” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “It’s exhausting. I know our kids are tired. This conference, there are not weeks off. They are no (automatic) W’s. There’s just battles every week.”
The Longhorns have another battle on deck against the Sooners, whom Texas defeated in October 48-45. Like so many other Big 12 bouts this season, the first Red River Showdown was decided by who had the ball last, as Texas kicker Cameron Dicker nailed a game-winning, 40-yard field goal with 9 seconds remaining to thwart Murray’s furious fourth-quarter rally.
While Clemson and Ohio State are heavy favorites against five-loss Pitt and four-loss Northwestern, respectively, in the ACC and Big Ten title games this weekend, the Big 12 championship will present the first Red River rematch since 1903, when Oklahoma was a territory and still four years away from statehood. If the Big 12 regular season, including the first Red River Showdown, was any indication, the Big 12 title game figures to deliver even more fireworks.
“This season has been a lot of fun,” said Murray, who is the biggest threat to Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa for the Heisman Trophy and the biggest reason why the Sooners are the only team since the advent of the AP Poll in 1936 to win four straight games while giving up at least 40 points. “We’ve obviously had a lot of ups and downs as a team. Everybody likes to talk down on Big 12 defense, but I don’t think there are many teams that (can stop the offenses).”
The Big 12 fun heated up with the first Red River Showdown, in which Murray quarterbacked the Sooners to three touchdowns in six minutes to erase Texas’ 21-point, fourth-quarter lead. But it didn’t stop there. The following week, Iowa State stunned sixth-ranked West Virginia, while Baylor was throwing into the end zone in the final seconds to nearly upset Texas, too.
“Speaks to two things: the parity and the fact you’re playing nine conference games,” said Baylor coach Matt Rhule, whose bowl-bound Bears had three other league games decided by a touchdown or less. “You’re not padding your schedule with a fourth nonconference game. It’s a really, really good league with a couple great teams at the top and a bunch of really good teams in the middle. Anybody can beat anybody on any given day.”
That was the case on Oct. 27, when Oklahoma State awoke from its slumber to knock off the Longhorns 38-35, putting Texas away with a third-down conversion in the final minute.
It was the case on Nov. 3, when Oklahoma survived Texas Tech in Lubbock 51-46 while West Virginia beat Texas 42-41 in Austin on a two-point conversion off a Will Grier quarterback draw. The Mountaineers would later signal from the sideline at Oklahoma State the same play with a double “Horns Down” gesture on fourth-and-goal from the 6-yard line. Grier took the ball in for another score on that one.
“It’s been very interesting. I said in July the parity in this league is more than ever,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said last week. “The good news for the fans is it’s going to be that way from here on out. We’re just a few plays from being maybe in a better position than we were last year at this time. I’m sure that most everybody in this league can say the same thing.”
The Cowboys were potentially a play away from knocking off their Bedlam rival the next week. After Taylor Cornelius connected with Biletnikoff Award finalist Tylan Wallace for a touchdown on fourth-and-12, Gundy went for two and the win. But Cornelius’ pass fell short of Wallace, and Oklahoma escaped 48-47. Texas escaped that same night to keep its Big 12 title hopes alive, withstanding another fourth-quarter comeback at Texas Tech.
Then on Nov. 17, Oklahoma State bounced back to eliminate West Virginia from playoff contention, roaring back from a 31-14 deficit with a game-winning Wallace touchdown grab in the final seconds.
“It’s been a lot of fun. We’ve been having a good time playing ball. What a heck of a college football game,” Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen said last week, before West Virginia’s wild game against the Sooners. “We’ve been in a lot of those this year, and Oklahoma State has been in a lot of those this year.”
So has Oklahoma and so have the Longhorns.
Setting up the perfect exclamation point for college football’s most exciting conference. The Big 12 doesn’t always deliver a playoff team, but it almost always delivers in entertainment.