‘Championship November’ pits Oklahoma Sooners up against one of the nation’s most-difficult schedules

Oklahoma heads into its patented “Championship November” on a high note. The Sooners cruised against Texas Tech, winning 52-21 as true freshman quarterback Caleb Williams carved up the Red Raiders’ defense with six passing touchdowns.

OU decided to play some defense, too. Sooners defensive lineman Isaiah Thomas directly influenced a pair of the three turnovers OU forced, Key Lawrence looked fantastic shifting over to cornerback and Delarrin Turner-Yell and Jalen Redmond were both back from injury.

It’s safe to say the compass is squarely pointing upward for Oklahoma. The Sooners will need that improved play to continue in order to accomplish their goals of reaching the College Football Playoff and perhaps winning an eighth national championship in program history.

It won’t be easy though, as Oklahoma’s schedule the rest of the way is rated as the second-most difficult remaining stretch for any ranked team according to Pro Football Focus. It also checks in as the fourth-most difficult remaining slate nationally behind Nebraska, Auburn, and Virginia.

Excluding the Western Carolina game, the Sooners won each of their first five games by a single score. They won those five one-score games in different ways.

At times, it was on the backs of their defense like against Nebraska and West Virginia. Against Kansas State and Texas, the offense led the way.

Even though it was sloppy for a large portion against Kansas, Oklahoma has now won its past three by multiple scores—52-31 at home over TCU, 35-23 at Kansas and 52-21 at home versus Texas Tech.

The Sooners appear to be kicking things into a different gear and the return of previously injured personnel has Oklahoma head football coach Lincoln Riley excited for what the remainder holds for his team defensively.

“We’ve had some points here obviously kind of through the middle part of the season where we’ve played really well, we’ve had some areas where we haven’t played well. Has some of that had to do with not having some guys? Sure, it has, but also some of it has to do with just us playing at the level we expect because certainly, even with all the guys out, with the eleven that we’re putting out there, we still feel and have felt very capable,” Riley said.

Riley and OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch both highlighted and discussed an improved week of preparation ahead of Oklahoma’s most recent contest against the Red Raiders.

How Oklahoma continues to prepare moving forward during this bye week and beyond will go a long way in determining what the Sooners’ ceiling ultimately looks like.

“I think if we can continue to prepare the way that we did last week, you continue to get a few more of these bodies back, I think we set ourselves up to play extremely well,” Riley said.

It’s fair to wonder how Oklahoma will look against the best teams that it will have faced. Removing Western Carolina, the combined record of OU opponents thus far is just 26-40. Only Kansas State and Texas Tech own winning records.

Each of Oklahoma’s final three regular season opponents have winning records and two—Baylor and Oklahoma State—are ranked inside the top 15.

Baylor, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State represent a big step up at least on paper. Their combined records sit at 19-5.

Under head coach Lincoln Riley, the Sooners are a perfect 14-0 in the month of November and have beaten six ranked opponents. Riley did his best to demonstrate exactly what the Sooners have bottled up to consistently peak at the right time.

“I think internal expectations is a big part of it. I think the expectation to be at our best, to continue to improve throughout the year,” Riley said.

Riley said while the cycle and grind have some other teams and programs ready for the season to end by this point, his program has historically embraced these high-stakes games late in the year.

“I think a lot of teams sometimes lose their edge or lose kind of that climb that you’re trying to accomplish. For us, it’s been… it’s like the time you can’t wait to get to,” Riley said.

“There’s just a certain sense around this program of you get to this time, like this is our favorite time. This is the best time of the year. You work and do everything you can to put yourself in the middle of the hunt going into November. I think just the anticipation and expectations internally within the program are so high that the guys are ready to do it. We’ve had leadership that’s been ready to be at their best at the end. I would attribute it to that. There’s been obviously a lot of guys that have spearheaded that, but it just always feels a little bit different around here this time of year. It just does. I can’t explain it but it’s obviously been a real positive thing.”

Riley said his teams have understood that when you keep winning, the games continue to grow in importance. Oklahoma has positioned itself at 9-0 where every game matters moving forward.

“It’s just been the fact that you know that you’ve won and you know that you’ve put yourself in a great position if you keep doing it. You’re going to have some unbelievable opportunities,” Riley said.

Riley also understands this month and what comes after it will define how this team will be regarded.

“This is what they’re going to remember you by. Winning the first nine and all that’s great, but this team will be remembered based on what it does here in the next couple of months. You feel like things are starting to align for us to play our best ball and feel like we’ve got the right group to do it. I’m excited to watch us prepare and watch us really surge because I do think we have it inside of us,” Riley said.

If Oklahoma conquers the month of November again, the Sooners will have done so against the most daunting slate of opponents in Riley’s tenure.

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Best Pro Football Focus Grades from Oklahoma's win over Texas Tech