Two seasons after losing in the College Football Playoff semifinals, Oklahoma is back and better than before.
The Sooners and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield will meet the Georgia Bulldogs in the Rose Bowl on Monday. The winner will face either Clemson or Alabama at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the national championship.
Oklahoma is the most explosive, dynamic team that Georgia has seen this season, and it’s not particularly close.
Here are five things to know about how Oklahoma qualified for the playoff:
1. Really elite: Oklahoma is completely reliant on Mayfield to win, and that's proved to be a successful formula.
The senior put up 4,340 passing yards with 41 touchdowns and only five interceptions in his Heisman campaign. He’s been here before, going 26-of-41 for 311 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in a 37-17 loss to Clemson in the 2015 Orange Bowl.
He’ll be looking to make up for that memory.
Aside from producing the nation’s third-best passing offense, Mayfield epitomizes leadership. His teams have consistently won since he transferred from Texas Tech after the 2013 season. In that time, Mayfield has completed 70 percent of his throws for 12,005 yards, 117 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.
“Yeah, he’s really elite,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “He goes up in that category beyond Johnny Manziel when it comes to creativity with the ball. He can make all the throws from all the angles. It’s not just scrambling. It’s the fact that when you get to him sometimes you can’t get him down. He’s strong.”
Perhaps more than Manziel, Mayfield can operate from the pocket, but is a nightmare when playing backyard-style. He doesn’t hesitate to make throws on the move and presents a unique challenge to a team that didn’t face a tough slate of quarterbacks in the SEC East.
Georgia will attempt to use its speed at linebacker to contain Mayfield and make him win from the pocket while not letting his myriad playmakers get into open space. It will require some time to feel out for both sides: Mayfield is unlike anyone Georgia’s seen, and Georgia’s defense is unlike anything Mayfield has opposed.
2. The other guys: Georgia players, coaches and every analyst will remind you that Mayfield may be what makes everything go, but the Sooners aren't starved for offensive talent around him.
Arguably the most intriguing matchup of the game will be how Georgia’s speed on defense handles Oklahoma’s huge tackle duo. Likely first-round pick Orlando Brown is 6-foot-8, 345 pounds. On the other end is the 6-4, 312-pound Bobby Evans.
NFL evaluators will want to see how the sometimes slow-footed Brown handles Lorenzo Carter and company off the edge. Mayfield may be able to escape and make plays on the run, but he’s benefited greatly from having two elite tackles.
Running back Rodney Anderson fits Mayfield’s style to a tee. He’s one of three backs on the team to average more than 50 yards per game, having done the most damage with 1,047 yards since taking over primary duties.
Against the Big 12’s second-best team, TCU, Anderson had a historic performance: 151 rushing yards, 139 receiving yards and four touchdowns. It was the first time since 1996 that a player has reached such marks in the same game.
Mark Andrews might be the best tight end in college football. He’s a mismatch nightmare, making it hard for Georgia to glue a linebacker or cornerback to him. He’ll see plenty of Aaron Davis in one-on-one situations.
3. Oh yeah, defense: The Sooners do play defense, contrary to common belief.
And on that defense is Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, the Big 12 co-defensive player of the year. Okoronkwo had eight sacks and 17 tackles for loss while lining up all over the field.
Georgia’s offensive line has been tested against star-studded SEC defenders, and Okoronkwo is on par with the league’s upper echelon of pass rushers.
But he’s one player on an 11-man unit that finished fourth in the Big 12 in total defense – not exactly a prideful achievement. The Sooners offense overcame their defensive deficiencies in all but one contest, when Oklahoma surrendered 38 in its lone loss to Iowa State on Oct. 7.
Since Oct. 21, the Sooners have allowed 35 points to Kansas State, 27 to Texas Tech, 52 to Oklahoma State and 31 to West Virginia; they won every game.
Oklahoma held TCU to 17 in the Big 12 Championship game. It held a helpless Kansas team to three points Nov. 18. But its lone truly meaningful showing was limiting the Buckeyes to 16 points in a 31-16 win at Ohio State on Sept. 9.
Alabama, Clemson and Georgia make up the top three nationally in total defense; Oklahoma ranks No. 58.
"We're fully capable of playing at a very high level," defensive coordinator Mike Stoops told the AJC's Mark Bradley. "There are some unique challenges in our league that didn't present itself throughout other leagues, but still it got down to our disciplines. Not being complacent. Complacency will ruin your team, and that's something that sometimes, if you're not pushed, that can happen to players. And that's something we had to really push our players."
4. The little things: If it becomes strength equaling strength, the difference will be turnovers and special teams.
Oklahoma has allowed seven punt returns this season, though those few returns averaged 15 yards (128th in the country). If Mecole Hardman breaks one, even if it results in three points, that could be a game-winner.
The Sooners don’t grab interceptions either. They have eight on the season while allowing 240.6 passing yards per game (87th nationally).
Both categories play into Georgia’s favor. The Bulldogs have received clutch plays from their special-teams unit, and they’re been exceptional at protecting the football.
Each team has a reliable kicker, with OU’s Austin Seibert and UGA’s Rodrigo Blankenship among the best in their respective conferences.
More important than limiting yards will be whether the Sooners can come up with a crucial special-teams play or turnover, something they haven’t shown an apt for (nor have they needed to) throughout most of the season.
5. Something to prove: Oklahoma feels disrespected. The stats say one thing, but history says another.
Oklahoma will face its fifth SEC opponent in four seasons. It dismantled Alabama 45-31 in 2014, defeated Tennessee twice in 2014 and 2015, then beat Auburn 35-19 in the 2016 Sugar Bowl.
Here they are again, meeting an SEC school with much of the talk centered on the aforementioned uninspiring defensive stats.
"People have been talking about us for years now, you know, talking about our defense not being physical enough," Okoronkwo said. "And every year we go play an SEC team and we win. And we win by a lot."
“We’ve got another chance to go out there and change the narrative,” defensive end D.J. Ward said.
“I’ve always told our players, we know what good defense is,” Stoops said. “Statistics can be misleading in a lot of ways, whatever. It doesn’t matter.”
The Sooners allowed 17.8 points per game over their final four, a noticeable improvement. If they hold Georgia to 17, that could be enough to win.
This is their chance to prove themselves on the biggest platform yet. That motivation might matter more than any statistics.