ARLINGTON, Texas — Lincoln Riley prefaced his answer by saying that his opinion doesn’t matter, but he believes Oklahoma is worthy of making the College Football Playoff. After avenging its only loss of the season by beating Texas 39–27 to win its fourth consecutive Big 12 championship, OU can only wait and see if the selection committee agrees.
“I get there are other great teams out there,” the Sooners coach said in the aftermath. “But I feel very confident that this team can go forward and continue to win and I think our best ball is ahead of us.
“We’ll let the committee do their job. They’ve got a lot of good things to look at from this team today. I’m sure they were tuned in and watching this and if they did, they saw one of the best teams in the country.”
Oklahoma has the nation’s No. 1 offense and a Heisman Trophy candidate in Kyler Murray at quarterback, but has mostly remained outside the playoff discussion this season because of its oft-criticized defense. This is a unit that’s allowed nearly 450 yards per game—the worst in the Big 12—and in its last four regular season wins, opponents have averaged 47.3 points per game. Even Kansas sliced the Sooners up for 40 points. But on Saturday afternoon in the high-stakes Red River Rematch, that same OU defense played the best it has all season. It limited Texas to a season-low 88 rushing yards, forced quarterback Sam Ehlinger to throw an interception late in the fourth quarter to prevent any last-minute heroics, and most importantly, made the play of the game.
With 8:27 remaining and OU up by three, Ehlinger admittedly didn’t see cornerback Tre Brown coming off the blitz, and he was sacked for a safety. Defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill, who was promoted to the position in October after Texas beat Oklahoma in October and former assistant Mike Stoops was fired, said he’d called this particular blitz “at least eight times before today.” Brown handled the assignment perfectly and it proved to be a critical moment, halting any future Texas momentum.
The play came right after the Longhorns held OU to its third field goal inside the red zone and right after Gary Johnson ran down CeeDee Lamb following a 54-yard reception and forced fumble at the Texas 10-yard line. The Longhorns were poised to drive down the field, take time off the clock, and maybe pull off their second win over Oklahoma this season. Instead, OU got the ball back and Murray led the Sooners on a touchdown drive to seal the victory.
This was OU’s second consecutive game pulling off a more concerted effort defensively. Last week in a three-point road win over West Virginia, OU gave up 704 yards on 7.8 yards per play, but scored two defensive touchdowns to survive. The defense still has flaws to work out, no doubt. But in Oklahoma’s most important games at the most important time of year, the offense isn’t the only part of this team making plays.
“I feel like we found ourselves,” Murray said, while also disclosing that this topic was something the team discussed Friday night before the game. “Defense came up big last week and this week. When we weren’t scoring, they got stops and that’s how football is supposed to be played.”
Now the question is, will the selection committee appreciate the Sooners’ ability to win a slightly more defensive game against the only team that beat them this season and send them to the playoff?
“I feel like we can score points on people and I feel like we can stop people and I feel like we’re gaining traction defensively,” Riley said. “I feel like we’ve had our highest performances in the last couple of weeks in huge games against dynamic offenses, and I don’t think we’ve played our best yet this year and I think we’re going to get there.”
Oklahoma has made its case. Now it has to wait a few more hours to find out if it did enough.