Sooner or later, the Big 12 needs a playoff win

Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley arrived at the Omni Hotel with the team in Atlanta on Monday, Dec. 23, 2019.
Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley arrived at the Omni Hotel with the team in Atlanta on Monday, Dec. 23, 2019.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the SEC never puts a fine point on anything. The SEC’s writing implement of choice is a Day-Glo magic marker, the better to scrawl in massive block letters: “It … Just … Means … More.”

The rest of the nation has wearied of such chest-thumping, but – with the singular exception of Clemson – no outsider has been able to do much about it. The sixth College Football Playoff will commence Saturday in the big building off Northside Drive, and here’s how many times an SEC representative has lost its semifinal:

Once.

That came Jan. 1, 2015, the first-ever day of CFP play. Ohio State, behind its No. 3 quarterback, heaped 42 points and 537 yards on Kirby Smart’s Alabama defense, a development so unthinkable Smart would phone Tom Herman, then the Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator, to ask how such a thing could have happened.

And that’s it. Five subsequent semis have seen SEC teams go 5-0. The average margin in those games – 18 points. The one close call also involved Smart, whose Georgia Bulldogs outlasted Oklahoma in two overtimes Jan. 1, 2018, in the Rose Bowl. Which brings us to Oklahoma and its conference, both of which remain 0-for-the-CFP.

Only one Power 5 league has failed to scratch in the playoff, and it’s not the lately beleaguered Pac-12. (The first CFP game saw Oregon beat Florida State 59-20.) It’s the Big 12, which technically has 10 members. For that conference, the indignities started early. The penultimate rankings in Year 1 of the CFP had TCU at No. 3. The Horned Frogs won their final regular-season game by 52 points. They managed to slip to No. 6 – behind both the Buckeyes, who’d beaten Wisconsin by 59 points, and fellow Big 12er Baylor, which beat Kansas State by 11.

The knock that year was that the Big 12, which didn’t hold a conference championship game, sought to game a system barely in place by declaring TCU and Baylor co-champs. (Even then, the CFP committee put a premium on winning your conference, but it had no time for co-champs.)

By 2017, the league had reinstated its title game. Oklahoma has won it three years running and made the playoff every time. The Sooners also cracked the field of four in 2015. What they haven’t yet done is win once there.

As the No. 4 seed in 2015, they were somehow favored over No. 1 Clemson. They lost by 20. They’ll be a two-touchdown underdog against LSU from the you-know-where in Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, which would be the biggest spread in CFP annals if not for last year’s semi against Alabama, when Oklahoma entered plus-14.5. It lost by 11 after trailing 28-0.

In July, Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt told George Schroeder of USA Today: “The Big 12 needs to win a national championship.” (Note: Hocutt was a former chair of the CFP committee.) Given that the Big 12 is pretty much Oklahoma and nobody else, it falls on the Sooners to fly the flag. Last year they barely made it into the field over two-loss Georgia. This year they needed the Bulldogs to lose to LSU, Utah to lose to Oregon and to beat Baylor themselves, all of which happened.

Some hold that this year’s Oklahoma isn’t the Oklahoma of previous playoff failures. It actually has a defense – the Sooners rank 25th nationally in yards against, ahead of LSU’s 32nd; a year ago, they ranked 114th – although lineman Ronnie Perkins is suspended for the Peach Bowl and safety Delarrin Turner-Yell is out with a broken collarbone. Heck, Oklahoma even has Jalen Hurts, a quarterback who has a history of winning titles with Alabama.

But we know SEC teams can win this time of year. Love it or hate it, that’s what the SEC does. Oklahoma and its league are fighting a perception that, until proved otherwise, will stand as reality: The Big 12 just means a little less.

(And yes, I know Texas of the Big 12 beat Georgia of Just Means More in the Sugar Bowl. But that wasn’t a playoff game. Though it was Herman trumping Smart again.)

Asked Friday what this semi means, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley – who apparently won't be coaching the Falcons – said: "I do think it's a chance to represent your league. I wouldn't shy away from that. I think you are, but I don't think this is necessarily about the Big 12 versus the SEC or anything else. So I don't know. Maybe I'm straddling the fence there."

Then: “This matchup is about Oklahoma and LSU, and that’s certainly what it’s going to come down to. But these are big stages. I think it’s great representing your league, just getting here because, obviously, with the current format, not every league is going to be represented in the College Football Playoff.”

That’s true. The Pac-12 hasn’t made it since 2016. The Big Ten is gracing the semis for the first time since then. Having been here four times in five years, Oklahoma is a playoff constant. Trouble is, it’s constant one-and-done.

Clemson and the SEC get to sort out the title. The Sooners get an all-expense-paid trip back to Norman. Maybe that will change Saturday. Though probably not.

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