Although Sooner Nation wants the big trophy — the one that Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley calls the “tall, skinny one” — Riley doesn’t want anyone to lose sight of the first real step toward that goal.
Winning another Big 12 Conference championship.
That campaign begins in earnest this week as the No. 4-ranked Sooners host West Virginia in their Big 12 opener.
OU (3-0) is working on an unprecedented run of six straight Big 12 titles. When the Sooners began this current run in 2015, Bob Stoops was still the head coach, Kyler Murray was still at Texas A&M, and Art Briles, Bill Snyder, Charlie Strong, Dana Holgorsen, Kliff Kingsbury, Paul Rhoads and David Beaty were roaming the sidelines.
No. 2-ranked TCU and No. 4 Baylor were the overwhelming preseason favorites to win the league title. OU was picked third.
That’s how much the league has changed in just the last six seasons.
It seems the only thing that hasn’t changed is who gets the trophy at the end of the year.
And while they’ve certainly become the norm and even almost a minimum expectation, Riley doesn’t want anyone to think winning a conference championship is passe.
“It’s one of those things, through the years, that can be taken for granted,” Riley said on Thursday. “It’s so dang hard to win a conference championship. We’ve had so many other good teams in this league, great players, good coaching staffs. I think sometimes around here it gets taken for granted — and it shouldn’t, because it’s so freaking hard.”
Riley said when he was hired by Stoops to fix the offense, the program’s goal was to recapture the Big 12 flag as soon as possible. It had been since 2012 — a three-year stretch, the longest without a Sooner championship since Stoops’ 2000 team won the whole thing.
“That was step No. 1, getting back to win Big 12 championships like (Stoops) had done so often and those teams before had done so often,” Riley said. “The league was really good that year. There was a ton of talent, especially offensively. We had some barn-burner games throughout that schedule. That was a big step, just that year. There was a lot of emphasis on winning that.”
In the structure of college football, it’s rare to get a shot at the national championship without winning a conference championship first. The SEC has done it a couple times, but no other league wields that kind of clout to carry a runner-up into the championship postseason.
So, in the Big 12, a trip to the College Football Playoff runs through Arlington, TX.
Sure, it’s been 21 years since OU’s last national championship. And in 2021, that is absolutely on the team’s to-do list. The fan base is starved for an eighth crown.
But big goals are most effectively accomplished through smaller goals. That means a renewed focus on a seventh straight Big 12 title.
“Those who have been in the fight each year see that,” Riley said. “They’ve certainly learned that kind of respect getting back in the league and the respect you even have at OU when you feel like you should be in the middle of it every year — that respect that you have for the teams that have been able to do it, because it’s been really hard.”