Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Athletics
There’s no denying that Bob Stoops and his successor, Lincoln Riley, have built something special in Norman, Oklahoma.
Over the last 21 years, Oklahoma has averaged nearly 11 wins per season. To this, they’ve added 13 Big 12 Championships, 14 major bowl appearances and one National Championship. The criticism has never been for not getting to the big game, having gone to the playoffs in three consecutive years. The knock on the Sooners over the last decade has been its inability to win the “Big One”.
Oklahoma was a virtual no-show in the Peach Bowl against top-ranked LSU, losing 63-28. Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow passed for more than 300 yards and 7 touchdowns in the first half. The Tiger QB added an 8th total touchdown on a run early in the third quarter. The 35-point drubbing served as Oklahoma’s second-worst loss in a bowl game ever. It was also its third straight one-and-done appearance in the College Football Playoff, and fourth in five years.
This isn’t to say that Oklahoma was undeserving of its playoff berth, but after a while, perception becomes reality. Fair or not, the College Football Playoff Selection Committee may hesitate to give a 1-loss Big 12 champion a playoff spot.
The Sooners started out fast in the new millennium. In 2000, they beat Florida State 13-2 in the Orange Bowl. In 2002, they followed that up with a Rose Bowl victory over Washington State 34-14. Since 2002, the Sooners are 3-9 in BCS and New Year’s Six bowls. The wins include a 48-20 Fiesta Bowl drubbing of an 8-4 Connecticut team to close 2010, an impressive 45-31 win over an “Kick-6’ed” Alabama team, and a 35-19 Sugar Bowl victory over a 4-loss Auburn team to close out 2016.
Since the national title against the ‘Noles,, Oklahoma is 0-6 when entering bowl season contending for a national championship. Oklahoma’s two worst bowl losses – a 55-19 Orange Bowl loss to USC to close 2004 season and the recent Peach Bowl defeat – have come with a national championship in play.
On other occasions, the Sooners simply haven’t finished the job. Oklahoma lost 21-14 to LSU in the Sugar Bowl for the 2003 national title, and was tied 14-14 with Florida in the fourth quarter before falling 24-14 for the 2008 national championship. In their four playoff appearances, the Sooners twice led at halftime, but were unable to get the job done. Oklahoma led Clemson 17-16 at the break in the 2015 Orange Bowl before being outscored 21-0 in the second half. Against Georgia in the 2017 Rose Bowl, the Sooners let a 17-point first-half lead slip away in a 54-48 double-overtime loss.
The problem hasn’t been offense. Lincoln Riley’s track record has produced two Heisman Trophy winners and #1 overall picks in the NFL Draft. The problem for the Sooners in the big game has been defense. In its four playoff losses and final two appearances in the national championship game during the BCS era, Oklahoma gave up an average of more than 46 points per contest.
In fact, the Sooners haven’t given up fewer than 38 points in any loss since falling to Houston 33-23 in the 2016 opener. The struggles defensively aren’t for a lack of talent, but until Oklahoma finds a way to stop the nation’s best, it must settle for being a semifinalist.