Playoff bound? Oklahoma stated its case loud and clear in Big 12 title game

As Oklahoma has scored relentlessly and compiled yardage at a historic pace this season, the lingering question hovering over the Sooner program was whether their defense could keep up. Oklahoma fired defensive coordinator Mike Stoops after losing to Texas in the regular season, and statistically things managed to get worse.

So as Oklahoma (12-1) both competed in the Big 12 championship and the beauty contest for the fourth and final College Football Playoff spot on Saturday, the Sooners managed to cobble together the best possible result. Their beleaguered defense shut out Texas in the fourth quarter, made the game’s defining play and star quarterback Kyler Murray played at the resplendent level we’ve come to expect.

No. 5 Oklahoma’s 39-27 victory over No. 14 Texas checked all the boxes for the Sooners in making a case against No. 6 Ohio State in the presumed race for the coveted final playoff spot. The game’s highlights were fitting to the narratives surrounding the Sooners, as defensive back Tre Brown delivered the game’s biggest play. He blitzed from the slot and sacked Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger for a safety with 8:27 remaining in the fourth quarter.

After the safety gave Oklahoma both a 32-27 lead and, more critically, possession of the ball, the Sooners clinched the game with the same flair that’s defined their oppressive offensive season. Tight end Grant Calcaterra hauled in a one-handed 18-yard touchdown catch from Murray on a third-and-10 play with two minutes remaining.

The ball was perfectly lobbed by Murray, who solidified his place near the top of many Heisman Trophy ballots on Saturday. He finished 25-for-34 for 379 yards and three touchdowns, another breath-taking performance in a season defined by them. “He’s the best player in the country, I think America saw that right here,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said after the game to ESPN.

Kyler Murray and the Oklahoma Sooners appear to be bound for the playoff. (AP)
Kyler Murray and the Oklahoma Sooners appear to be bound for the playoff. (AP)

The Sooners’ College Football Playoff hopes now hinge on the question that’s dogged the sport: Can anyone beat Alabama? If No. 4 Georgia defeats the top-ranked Crimson Tide in the SEC title game on Saturday, the Sooners are heavy favorites to slide into that No. 4 spot. No. 6 Ohio State plays No. 21 Northwestern later Saturday, but both the result from Oklahoma’s performance and the tenor of it work in OU’s favor. The Sooners entered the game with the country’s No. 100 ranked offense, yielding 32.8 points per game. Holding Texas to 27 points makes a marked case for improvement, especially after the Longhorns won the initial meeting 48-45. That game prompted the removal of Mike Stoops as defensive coordinator.

Riley did a pinch of lobbying after the game in an on-field interview. When asked why the Sooners should be included in the playoff, he didn’t duck the opportunity to politic: “Because of what you saw today,” he said. “It’s a 12-win team. Our defense played well today.” He added: “We’re still getting better and better. Our best ball is ahead of us.”

Texas fans will be hoping, in part, that the Sooners reach the College Football Playoff. That opens the door for the Longhorns to potentially play in the Sugar Bowl, which would be another strong step in coach Tom Herman’s second season in Austin. Herman’s Longhorns went 9-4 and found both an identity and quarterback of the future, as Ehlinger finished 23-of-36 for 349 yards and two touchdowns.

Texas entered the fourth quarter tied at 27 with the Sooners, in part because a blocked extra point robbed them of the lead. But Texas’ offense went silent after the safety and the defense looked tired as it kept whiffing on tackles while Oklahoma marched up and down the field in the fourth quarter.

Was Oklahoma’s late surge and new-found defensive chops enough to jolt OU into that No. 4 spot? There are still a handful of variables at play, but the result and aesthetics of the game couldn’t have gone much better.

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