It is not an exaggeration to call Saturday night’s meeting between No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 6 TCU in Norman the Big 12’s biggest game this season. Both the Sooners and Horned Frogs had already beaten the third-best team in the conference, Oklahoma State, and they stood alone as viable threats to claim a College Football Playoff berth.
Only one holds that distinction after Oklahoma racked up 533 total yards and 38 first-half points, more than TCU had given up in both halves of any of its previous 17 games (as pointed out on Twitter by Sooners assistant athletics director Mike Houck), in a 38-20 win to claim pole position in the Big 12 and improve its record to 9-1.
Oklahoma sophomore running back Rodney Anderson tormented TCU’s defense, recording four touchdowns in the first half and finishing with 290 rushing and receiving yards combined. And redshirt senior quarterback Baker Mayfield may have wrapped up the Heisman Trophy race with another scintillating showing: 333 yards and three touchdowns on 18-of-27 passing.
Doubters will continue to point to the Sooners’ defense, which entered Saturday ranked 87th nationally in yards allowed per play and 75th in points allowed per game after allowing the Cowboys to score 52 a week ago. But Oklahoma's offense is so explosive, they’ve been able to get by in spite of their frailties on the other side of the ball.
The Bedlam game was unrepresentative. Oklahoma won’t face an attack that dangerous the rest of the season. On Saturday, the Sooners kept the Horned Frogs in check, holding them well below their points per game total in league play before Saturday (29.2), and bet, rightly, that Mayfield and his cast of playmakers would win their battle against TCU’s stingy D. Oklahoma was shut out in the second half, but that didn’t matter because it kept stuffing the the Horned Frogs, which managed only one scoring drive after the break.
There’s a chance both of these teams will meet again in three weeks. The Big 12, which plays a nine-game round-robin schedule, is holding a championship game for the first time since 2010. The matchup, to be staged at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex., will double as a rematch between the top two squads in the 10-deep, division-less conference.
The obvious upside to staging a championship bout is that it provides the winner an opportunity to strengthen its case for the playoff. But there’s risk, too, in having your No. 1 candidate for the final four play an extra game after league play. A loss could well be the difference between it making the CFP and settling for a less prestigious bowl game.
A doomsday scenario for the Big 12 is TCU exacting revenge on Oklahoma in the title game. If that happens, the conference would head into selection Sunday with a two-loss champion, the Horned Frogs, as its best hope for playoff inclusion. Given the current composition of the crop of candidates for the playoff, they would be a long shot to get in.
The Sooners and TCU have navigated the most trying parts of their conference schedules. Between them, there’s only one opponent remaining that’ll leave this weekend in the top half of the conference standings. Round two on a neutral field could seal a playoff bid for Oklahoma, or it could be the decisive blow against it, and consequently, the Big 12.