Oklahoma ascending: Can the Sooners' late-season surge produce a playoff berth? Punt, Pass & Pork
WACO, Texas—Eric Striker paused for a moment Saturday night. "Let me try to explain how good this feels," the Oklahoma senior linebacker said.
Then Striker offered his explanation of how the Sooners' 44–34 win at Baylor felt for a team that had been clobbered by the Bears in each of the previous two seasons. "You ever been out all day, working in camp or working on something?" Striker asked no one in particular. "You ain't been home all day. You're in the humidity and everything. It's just hot. You feel the stickiness—the funkiness—because you've been out all day. Then you get home and take that shower. You get out of the shower and just kind of go, 'Hooooooooooooooooo. Man, that feels good.' So that's how it feels. Just refreshed."
The Sooners should feel refreshed, because they look like a new team. They barely resemble the team that needed a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Tennessee 31–24 in double overtime on Sept. 12. They look nothing like the team that got humbled by Texas 24–17 in Dallas on Oct. 12. The question now is whether the College Football Playoff selection committee will recognize the difference between the October Sooners and the November Sooners. If there is a team 2015 Oklahoma (9–1) resembles, it might be '14 Ohio State. Last year, the Buckeyes lost at home in September to a Virginia Tech team that ultimately lost six games. By early December, Ohio State bore little resemblance to the group that lost to the Hokies. Could Oklahoma—with its loss to a Texas outfit that will likely finish 5-7 or 4-8—be on a similar path?
After the Texas loss, Sooners coach Bob Stoops invoked last season's Buckeyes. He knew his team was better than it had shown during a seven-point defeat at the Cotton Bowl. Stoops hoped his players would believe it, too. "That was really the first thing that coach Stoops told us in the locker room after the Texas game," Oklahoma junior quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "We took that to heart. Ever since then, we've just been grinding it out."
Even Saturday night, after he accounted for 346 yards with four touchdowns—including the game-clinching pass on a third-and-goal from the seven-yard line when a field goal might have opened the door for the Bears—Mayfield was asked to explain the Texas loss. "Trying to do too much," Mayfield said. He did not mention that an offensive line that was mostly new this season has jelled or that defenders such as senior end Charles Tapper (six sacks in Oklahoma's past three games) have hit their stride, but that overall improvement was heavily implied. "We've kind of come together," Mayfield said. "We've meshed well, and we realize that's not how we should play. We know the standard now."
While the Texas loss continues to hang over the Sooners, it may not matter if they keep winning and chaos keeps picking off potential rivals for playoff spots. On Saturday, Stanford's 38–36 loss to Oregon and Utah's 37–30 double-overtime defeat at Arizona guaranteed the Pac-12 would have at best a two-loss champion. That thins the herd. LSU's 31–14 loss to Arkansas means Alabama and Florida are probably the only two SEC teams that remain in contention for a playoff spot. Assuming Alabama clinches the SEC West by beating Auburn on Nov. 28, either the Crimson Tide or the Gators will hand the other a loss in Atlanta. (And Florida may yet lose to Florida State on Nov. 28.) A Michigan State win at Ohio State next Saturday or an Ohio State loss at Michigan on Nov. 28 could further complicate the playoff picture for the Big Ten teams. And Notre Dame, which suffered its only loss at top-ranked Clemson, must play at Stanford on Nov. 28. That's no gimme. So, even with an ugly loss, Oklahoma doesn't seem to need much help if it keeps winning.
That remains the biggest if. The Sooners still must beat TCU and Oklahoma State—current combined record: 19–1—in consecutive weeks. Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson said Saturday that he expects senior quarterback Trevone Boykin to play in Norman even though Boykin missed the final three quarters of TCU's win 23–17 win over Kansas with an ankle injury. Meanwhile, the Bears will try to bounce back from their loss to the Sooners in Stillwater against the undefeated Cowboys.
While the Sooners can control how they play, they cannot control how the selection committee members perceive it. They entered the weekend at No. 12 in the committee's rankings and will certainly move up after beating the No. 6 team on the road. Where they rank relative to Oklahoma State will be irrelevant because if both teams win next week, they'll face off for the Big 12 title in Bedlam on Nov. 28. The bigger question will be where Oklahoma ranks relative to Notre Dame. Should the Fighting Irish win out, they might wind up with wins over both Pac-12 title game participants (USC and Stanford) and both American Athletic Conference title game participants (Navy and Temple). Notre Dame also beat Texas 38–3 in its season-opener on Sept. 5, and the committee is supposed to compare common opponents. But the committee is also supposed to take into account championships won. In this scenario, Oklahoma would have a conference title and Notre Dame, an independent, would not. Neither would have the apparently magical 13th data point, though.
The problem with speculating what the selection committee will do is we have no idea what the selection committee will do. Yes, the committee placed a team in the bracket last year that had lost at home to a six-loss team. That doesn't mean it will act the same way with a similar team this year. Yes, the committee left the Big 12's two best teams just outside of the bracket last year. That doesn't mean it will hold some sort of grudge against the Big 12's champ this year. The committee has seeded the field exactly once, and any attempt to use a one-time occurrence to predict future behavior is probably fruitless.
Oklahoma's Striker offered the best plan for predicting the bracket on Saturday night. "Let whoever handles that handle that stuff," he said. All the Sooners can concern themselves with now is TCU. And if they keep winning, everything else might take care of itself. "We're one of those teams that has a chance," Stoops said. "We're going to keep trying to improve and give ourself an opportunity next week to play as well or better. Again, you come into an undefeated team's [stadium] ranked that high waiting on you like they were and win by 10, it's got to be a positive."
Projected College Football Playoff
1. Alabama (9–1)
I went back and forth about whether to leave Clemson at No. 1 or replace the Tigers with the Crimson Tide, but the question I kept coming back to was this: Based on what we've seen this season, who do I think would win if those two teams met on a neutral field? The answer at the moment is Alabama. After watching the Tide clobber LSU on Nov. 7, I wondered if that performance was Alabama's peak or its new normal. After Saturday's 31–6 rout of Mississippi State, it's quite possible this level of suffocation is to be expected from the Tide.
2. Clemson (10–0)
The Tigers let Syracuse hang around into the fourth quarter of a 37–27 win, and a bit of a letdown on the road is certainly understandable after a victory as big as the one against Florida State the previous week. Still, it's tough to picture anyone beating Alabama given the way the Crimson Tide are playing of late. Even though someone already beat Alabama and no one has beaten Clemson, the Tide seem to have found another gear. Besides, if I'm wrong, the Tigers would have a chance to prove that in the playoff.
3. Oklahoma State (10–0)
Yes, the Cowboys needed another comeback to beat Iowa State 35–31. But they still have a top-notch win over a TCU team that then featured a healthy Boykin. Did the trip to Ames expose some potential issues? Sure. But with games against Baylor and Oklahoma coming up in the next two weeks, the Cowboys will either maintain their grip on this spot or show why someone else should take it.
4. Notre Dame (9–1)
The Irish just keep rolling. They'll face Boston College this week before traveling to Stanford for their regular-season finale on Nov. 28. Should Notre Dame finish 11–1, it will have a decent shot of getting in the playoff as long as there aren't three undefeated Power Five conference champions. Why do I have the one-loss Irish ranked ahead of Ohio State? Because the Buckeyes have yet to face a tough opponent, and they have been underwhelming in most of the games they've played. If they whip up on Michigan State, then they could leapfrog one or two of the teams I have listed here. We know Ohio State has talent. It just needs to show how good that talent can be against quality competition. It'll get its chance this week.
A random ranking
ESPN.com writer Max Olson
was unlucky enough to sit next to me in the press box at Baylor had the honor of choosing this week's topic. He wanted a definitive list of the best Gatorade flavors. So here it is.
1. Light blue (It has multiple names, like Glacier Rush—or maybe Glacier Rush is a deodorant scent—but no matter what it's called, it tastes the best.)
4. Red (the old-school Fruit Punch, not any of the lighter hues)
5. Lemon Ice
Big Ugly of the Week
Oklahoma senior center Ty Darlington has anchored a unit that had to replace three starters this season and went through some serious early growing pains. The Sooners' line has gotten better as the season has progressed, and it opened some huge holes on Saturday for sophomore tailback Samaje Perine, who gained 166 yards on 28 carries in the win over Baylor.
"You can't even compare who we were in that Texas game to who we are today. And we're not even close to where we can be or where we need to be to get to where we want to be," Darlington said of his line. "But we've taken tremendous strides. And that's going to continue to happen with us putting this one behind us and getting back to work tomorrow."
For leading the line to a point where it can help keep the Sooners in contention for the Big 12 and national titles, Darlington is your Big Ugly of the Week.
1. Before Oklahoma State survived Iowa State and Oklahoma took down Baylor, another Big 12 heavyweight dealt with the loss of its star and struggled against the league's worst team. TCU lost quarterback Boykin to an ankle injury in the first quarter of Saturday's win over Kansas, but Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson believes Boykin should return to face Oklahoma in Norman. "I think Trevone will be back," Patterson told reporters. "We just couldn't take a chance. It's an ankle. He's got to get himself healthy. He did it on the first series—got it twisted around."
If Boykin can't play this week, Patterson and co-offensive coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie will face a choice. Senior Bram Kohlhausen has been Boykin's backup this season, but Kohlhausen was yanked against the Jayhawks in favor of redshirt freshman Foster Sawyer.
Star receiver Josh Doctson only caught one pass for 12 yards in the game. Doctson injured his wrist a week earlier in a 49–29 loss at Oklahoma State. It appears the Frogs will go into a two-week stretch that includes matchups with Oklahoma and Baylor with their two best players limited. "I don't know how these next two weeks will go, because we're pretty banged up," Patterson told reporters. "We'll be back to a pretty good football team by bowl time."
2. Speaking of quarterbacks getting hurt before games with conference and playoff consequences, Michigan State's Connor Cook left Saturday's 24–7 win over Maryland with an apparent shoulder injury. Both Cook and Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said Cook should be ready to play this week at Ohio State. "There was no popping out of any sort," Cook told The Detroit News. "They looked at it a little bit. I'll be fine to go next week. I'll be good."
Michigan State's strength of schedule got a boost from Oregon's win at Stanford, but the big picture for the Spartans hasn't changed since the preseason. Their Big Ten fate will depend on what happens Saturday in Columbus. A win over the Buckeyes would allow Michigan State to take the Big Ten East with a victory over Penn State the following week. A loss to the Buckeyes would turn the Ohio State-Michigan matchup on Nov. 28 into the Big Ten East title game.
3. The Wolverines had an even more harrowing trip to Indiana than their rivals did last month. The Hoosiers pushed Michigan into double overtime, but the Wolverines pulled out a 48–41 win behind 440 passing yards and six touchdowns from quarterback Jake Rudock. On Oct. 3, Indiana—then 4–0—drove to the Ohio State six-yard line in the final minute before the Buckeyes' defense held on to secure a 34–27 win.
Indiana has lost all six of its Big Ten games, but the Hoosiers could still become bowl eligible for the first time since 2007 by beating Maryland and Purdue in the season's final two weeks. (It's also possible the Hoosiers could make a bowl at 5–7 if there aren't enough teams with six or more wins to fill the 80 available bowl slots. There are currently 60 teams that have won at least six games. There are 18 sitting at five wins.)
4. Another top team lost its quarterback to injury Saturday, but Houston managed to rally and beat Memphis 35–34—even without Greg Ward Jr. The Cougars trailed 20–0 late in the second quarter when Ward left with an apparent ankle injury.
In came backup Kyle Postma, who began the season moonlighting at wide receiver before returning to quarterback full-time in late September following an ACL injury to backup Adam Schulz. Postma threw a touchdown pass on his first drive and then led Houston's comeback in the second half. His seven-yard touchdown run with 1:27 remaining tied the score, and Ty Cummings's extra point gave the Cougars their first lead of the night.
"Gutsy. He's a pretty unflappable kid," Houston coach Tom Herman told reporters of Postma. "We talk about unit pride and competitive focus. Competitive focus meaning that when your number is called, you are prepared. When your number is called, you won't let your brothers down. I don't think anyone batted an eye when we put him in the game."
The Cougars are now 10–0, but they aren't in the clear to win the American Athletic Conference's West Division. To clinch it, Houston will have to beat Navy (8–1) on Nov. 27. Meanwhile, having yet another quarterback ready to go in at a moment's notice and help his team win probably caused some Power Five athletic directors with open jobs to think even harder about targeting Herman, who managed Ohio State's shifting quarterback situation during the Buckeyes' national title run in 2014.
5. A day after learning that coach Gary Pinkel would resign following this season because of Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, Missouri scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to spark a 20–16 victory over BYU in Kansas City. The win came at the end of a tumultuous week that began with members of the team threatening to boycott the game if the university president didn't resign and ended with Pinkel announcing a resignation he hadn't planned to announce until Sunday. Here's what Pinkel told the team after the win.
6. All those preseason predictions indicating that Arkansas could be sneaky good in the SEC West were apparently accurate. It just took losses to Toledo and Texas Tech before the Razorbacks could reach their potential. Saturday, Arkansas knocked LSU out of the playoff race with a 31–14 win at Tiger Stadium. The Hogs also beat the Tigers 17–0 last season, and this week's victory followed a wild 53–52 overtime win at Ole Miss on Nov. 7. The Razorbacks' defense played much better in Baton Rouge, sacking quarterback Brandon Harris five times. LSU tailback Leonard Fournette wasn't completely shut down the way he was a week earlier at Alabama, but he finished 81 yards below his season rushing average with 91 yards.
"When you come to play Arkansas, I want you know that you're in a street fight," Hogs coach Bret Bielema said. "It's not going to come easy. We're going to play, and we're going to play longer than a lot of people want to play. … I think we can begin to get a little respect in our league even before we take the field now. It's fun where we're going."
Arkansas now sits at second place in the SEC West. What it says about the division that a team that lost to Toledo and Texas Tech is in second place is another question entirely.
7. Arizona was in danger of finishing the season with five straight losses if the banged-up Wildcats—who play 12 games in 12 weeks this fall—couldn't find a way to stop the skid. The Wildcats did that Saturday with a double-overtime win over Utah that might have knocked the Pac-12 from playoff contention.
Arizona lost starting quarterback Anu Solomon in the fourth quarter to an apparent concussion, but backup Jerrard Randall threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Nate Phillips on the first play of the second overtime. Linebacker Scooby Wright III, the Wildcats' best player, missed his ninth game of the season. The Wildcats also lost linebacker Jake Matthews to a leg injury in the fourth quarter.
"With everything that has happened with the injuries, and the way that the schedule is lined up, I think maybe some of the doubts understandably started to creep in," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "This is one of the best [wins] for sure. I am not going to say that it is the best, but it is one of the best since I've been here, simply because I don't think that a lot of folks thought that it would happen."
8. South Florida coach Willie Taggart entered this season on the hot seat. He'll end it in a bowl and with a much safer grip on his job after a late surge that culminated with a 44–23 victory over Temple on Saturday. Marlon Mack led the Bulls with 230 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns and a receiving score.
USF is now 6–4 and headed to a bowl for the first time since 2010, but the Bulls might get a chance to play another extra game. USF is 4–2 in the American and one game behind Temple for first in the East Division. USF still has to play Cincinnati and UCF. Temple must still play Memphis and UConn. If the Bulls can gain a game on the Owls, they would win the East by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker.
9. West Virginia had the misfortune of playing Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU in consecutive games earlier this season. The Mountaineers lost all four, but they rebounded by beating Texas Tech and then Texas at home to improve to 5–4. After West Virginia beat the Longhorns 38–20 on Saturday, coach Dana Holgorsen went crowd-surfing.
10. Notre Dame defensive tackle Sheldon Day? He gets it from his mama.
What's eating Andy?
I woke up in Dallas on Sunday morning and then I got on a plane. Had someone told me there was something called Meat Fight taking place in Dallas on Sunday, I would have canceled my flight.
What's Andy eating?
When researching the restaurants I might visit for this section, I give extra weight to those that offer unfamiliar dishes. And because Baylor's recent success had made booking a hotel room in Waco this weekend difficult to impossible, I knew I'd spend my Friday night in Dallas. I've visited most of the famous barbecue joints in the city already. I've written about burgers there. I can't tell the difference between good Tex-Mex and bad Tex-Mex because beef, beans and melted cheese usually tastes like beef, beans and melted cheese. (That usually tastes pretty good.) So, as I scanned a list of the best reviewed restaurants in the area, I resolved to choose the place that served a signature dish I'd never heard of before that moment.
That's how I wound up staring down at my first pambazo on Friday afternoon. What's a pambazo? It's chorizo, potatoes, cheese, lettuce and cream sauce stuffed between two slices of bread that has been dipped into guajillo pepper sauce and grilled. It is a sandwich that must be eaten with a knife and fork, and it'd make an ideal breakfast, lunch or dinner. This particular pambazo came from a place called Tortas La Hechizera, a tiny spot tucked into a strip mall near where the Dallas North Tollway meets Interstate 635. The place has pictures of the food on its menu board, which is usually a harbinger of indigestible things. In fact, Tortas La Hechizera checks none of the boxes for fine dining except for the one marked "sandwiches you'll dream about for weeks."
I have no idea if this is the best pambazo in Texas or even the best in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. All I know is that after lunch on Friday, I'm convinced pretty much every sandwich except peanut butter and jelly could be improved by dipping the bread in chile sauce and making it feel the hot kiss of a flattop grill. While the bread is undeniably moist, the grilling process keeps it from getting soggy. It also helps that Tortas La Hechizera uses thick, hearty slabs of bread that can stand up to the dunking and grilling.
The spicy bread and the chorizo might be overkill if not for the mellowing effects of the cream, lettuce and queso fresco. The potatoes provide yet another medium to soak up all the spicy and salty goodness dripping off the bread and the sausage.
How the pambazo hasn't taken America by storm is a mystery. I'm just grateful I now know where to find one in a city I visit often.