The Big 12 Needs a Spark

The Big 12 is a mess. Don’t believe me? Here’s Oklahoma State losing on a last-second play to Central Michigan:

Need more proof? In the Power 5 conferences, there are two teams who won every game in their conference. One of them is in the playoffs this year (roll tide I guess), and the other one couldn’t move higher than #7 in the final College Football Playoff rankings. Of course, the reason Oklahoma never really sniffed the playoff has a lot to do with their two losses in non-conference play (Houston and Ohio State), but it sure didn’t help that no one was really that impressed with their 9-0 domination of the Big 12.

The Big 12’s other historic power lost to its worst team, which led to Texas firing its second coach in four years. West Virginia was the only team to put on a respectable play in non-conference play, but they followed that with two losses to conference foes. Baylor was also undefeated in non-conference play, but they pulled their typical “Baylor schedule,” so their wins wouldn’t have been impressive even if they’d won by triple digits. Oh, and Baylor also ended up losing its last six games to finish a not-so-impressive 6-6.

Unfortunately, this is the world in which Big 12 fans now find themselves. To make matters worse, the Big 12 declined to expand its size this season. While I personally think that means some of the bigger programs are starting to plan an exit strategy, that’s neither here nor there, and as long as the conference exists, its reputation matters. This is especially true with a playoff committee that bases their choices on the “eye test,” with a carousel of other excuses used to justify votes as necessary.

Well, reputation for next season starts with the bowl games this season, however unfair that might be. Perception is everything. So let’s preview the bowl games coming up for the few teams who actually played well enough to merit entry into one.

Baylor

First up, 6-6 Baylor takes on Boise State in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl. Personally, I think this is a winnable matchup for the Bears, even though Vegas has the Broncos as 7-point favorites. Unfortunately for Baylor, Seth Russell suffered a season-ending injury in Norman, and Shock Linwood is skipping this game to try increase his draft stock (or so he says). Boise State puts up points, but honestly everyone puts up points on Baylor’s defense, so that’ll be nothing new to the Bears. The Bears will have to keep the tempo going to see if they can try to match the Broncos point-for-point, then get lucky at one point or another with a turnover.

With the guard changing at Baylor, this game won’t matter much for their own national reputation. But it would certainly help the conference as a whole if they could show they’re not the dumpster fire they certainly appeared to be in the second half of the season.

West Virginia

Wednesday night, the Mountaineers will face the Miami Hurricanes in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Outside of perhaps Oklahoma, no team needs a bowl win to boost its reputation more than West Virginia does. West Virginia finished the season ranked #16 in the country, with seven (!) teams with more losses ranked ahead of it. It has no coaching changes coming, instead signing Dana Holgerson to an extension, so it should get to keep some of the good will it could garner with a win in postseason play. Against 8-4 Miami, they’re 2.5 point underdogs.

On offense, the game actually looks fairly even. Miami averages two more points-per-game than West Virginia, but in the teams’ last three games they’ve reached averaged exactly 33.67 points. West Virginia averages just over seven fewer passing yards per game, but its big advantage is in the running game, where it averages more than 70 yards-per-game more than Miami. Meanwhile, on the defensive end, West Virginia has a better scoring defense, passing defense, and rushing defense than Miami does. And they say the Big 12 doesn’t play defense…

Ironically, a conference known for poor defensive play will actually need its representative in this one to flex its defensive muscle to come away with a win against Miami. I don’t know what the odds makers saw that told them West Virginia should be an underdog, but I don’t agree.

Kansas State

Also on Wednesday night, Kansas State plays Texas A&M. Big 12 fans might remember the Aggies as the sore losers who bounced to the SEC for more money and less embarrassment against Texas, and now they’re back for their second bowl matchup against the Big 12 since their exodus. Johnny Manziel carried the day for the Aggies the last time around, but he’s long gone. Instead, the Aggies will trot out another Big 12 deserter in Trevor Knight. As much as Sooner fans love Trevor Knight, they also know all too well what kind of a quarterback he can be. On paper, the Aggies are the clear favorite to win this game, but if Kansas State can keep Knight in the pocket, they’ll have a chance. They’ll have to keep Myles Garrett at bay, too, or they might not generate many points of their own.

Frankly, these two teams couldn’t be more opposite. Kansas State has a knack for overachieving, and the Aggies always seem to find a way to come crashing down when the hype gets too big. As Kevin Sumlin finds his seat warming beneath him, expect the Aggies to come out firing. The game could be ugly, but that’s probably better for Bill Snyder’s crew than his opponent.

Ultimately I think A&M will come away with a win, but if Kansas State can keep it close, they can at least win some respect.

Oklahoma State

On Thursday, the Cowboys (featured in the video at the beginning of the article) play Colorado in the Valero Alamo Bowl. While Colorado is three point favorites, Oklahoma State’s got a chance to win this game. Last we saw Oklahoma State, they were being put out of their misery by Samaje Perine, but they’ve since learned that their star quarterback and wide receiver will both be returning to Stillwater next year, so (unlike Linwood), they don’t need to sit out and introduce themselves to NFL scouts.

Colorado’s defense will give the Pokes all they can handle, but Washington showed the world that the Buffaloes can be beaten by a strong running game, which Oklahoma State possesses every once in a while. If they can run the ball like they did in the first half against Oklahoma, they should be able to put enough points on the board to win. Sefo Linfau is Coloroado’s star gunslinger, and if he’s perfectly healthy he could be a problem for the Cowboys. He certainly didn’t look healthy against Washington in the Pac 12 championship, but he’s had quite a while to heal. His play will likely be the difference here, and it’ll probably be enough to carry Colorado.

Even a loss in this game wouldn’t hurt the Big 12 too much, since Colorado was at one point on the cusp of the Playoffs, but a win sure would be nice.

TCU

TCU goes toe-to-toe with Georgia on Friday afternoon in the Autozone Liberty Bowl. The odds makers say this is a toss-up, and I’m inclined to agree. The Kenny formerly known as Trill will be fielding the snaps for TCU, and he’s been both electric and disastrous depending on whether he chooses to make good choices with the ball. He’ll be facing a Georgia team that has been a disappointment in the SEC with losses coming against Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Florida, and Georgia Tech. They also squeaked out a win against both Nicholls and Missouri, so suffice it to say these are not your father’s Bulldogs. Nick Chubb will be doing his best to run through TCU’s defense, but if Gary Patterson can find a way to slow him down, and Hill doesn’t crash and burn, TCU could come away with a win.

Despite Georgia’s historic reputation, given the season they’ve had, a loss by TCU would really be a problem for the conference. It’s not always easy to root for TCU, but Big 12 fans will have to try.

Oklahoma

The Sooners, quite easily the crown jewel of the Big 12, play Auburn in the Sugar Bowl next Monday. Since the Sooners are the prrrrrriiiiiiiide of the Big 12 conference, there’s a lot at stake in this one in terms of respect. Also, they will not be playing the SEC champion, since Alabama will be busy beating up on Washington in the playoffs. That means that the best team from one conference will be playing the second-best team from another conference. There’s a lot at stake if the Sooners lose, and I don’t think they’ll get a lot of credit if they win a game in which they’re favored.

One question mark for Oklahoma will be how they handle the circus that’s been going on around them for the last two weeks. It won’t be easy to forget, but perhaps having an actual football game will give them something of a reprieve.

The Sooner secondary should certainly be getting a reprieve, since Auburn has repeatedly showed that they don’t care to complete passes. While the Auburn running attack is solid, the passing game is decidedly not so. Oklahoma has been quietly getting better in the secondary while at times seeming worse against the run, so the matchup comes at an odd time for them. They’ll have to find a way to put together a respectable performance on defense.

On offense, the Sooners just need to do what they’ve been doing. A stout Auburn defense is sure to greet them, but the SEC doesn’t face many (any) offenses with Oklahoma’s well-rounded skill. If the Sooners can keep them off balance and push the tempo, they should be able to save face and come away with a win in a big-time bowl game.

Overall, in the Big 12’s six bowl games, it really needs to win at least three of them. It also needs to avoid embarrassment in any of the losses. If it can do that, this bowl season should go a long way in voter’s minds, and it might be enough to help the Big 12 avoid missing out on the playoffs for a third time next year.

Samaje Perine is the Rushing Record Holder

NEW ORLEANS — Samaje Perine is the Oklahoma Sooners’ new career rushing leader.

The junior running back passed Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims and three others to become the Sooners’ all-time leading rusher in a 35-19 Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Auburn on Monday night.

Perine needed 83 yards on Monday to surpass Sims’ career total of 4,118 yards. He got there in the fourth quarter, finishing the night with 17 carries for 86 yards — good for a career total of 4,122 yards.

Perine also passed former Sooners Joe Washington (4,071 yards), Adrian Peterson (4,045) and Steve Owens (4,041) before getting to Sims on Monday.

Coach Bob Stoops lauded Perine’s achievement after the game.

“To be the all-time leading rusher at a place like Oklahoma, when you look at the lineage through the decades, is really something special,” Stoops said. “The entire team took a lot of pride in that.”

Asked postgame about the accomplishment, Perine said: “It really hasn’t hit me yet; don’t know exactly when it will. I’m just happy we get the win in the fashion we did, ready to celebrate with my team.”

Quarterback Baker Mayfield said that before the late drive in which Perine set the mark, he had asked for an update on where the record stood.

“He was 30 yards away,” Mayfield said. “I told the offensive line, so they kind of geared up. I told them, ‘We still gotta finish it out the right way, but it’s just some extra motivation for you.’

“The record means a lot, so the whole drive down the field, I was kind of doing the math in my head, and he made that last long run, and it was just enough, and I went and hugged him.”

Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma cruise after Auburn loses starting QB
Oklahoma ran roughshod over Auburn after the Tigers lost QB Sean White early in the game, winning the Sugar Bowl in convincing fashion.
Perine had said late last week that he had not yet determined whether he will return to Oklahoma for his senior season.

His 239 yards on 37 carries in the Sooners’ victory over Oklahoma State to clinch the Big 12 title propelled him to within reach of the top spot.

Perine made a name for himself in 2014 when he rushed for 1,713 yards his freshman year, fifth-best in school history, and 21 touchdowns. He ran for a Football Bowl Subdivision-record 427 yards against Kansas that season, a record that still stands. As a sophomore, he added 1,349 yards and 16 touchdowns.

He finished this season with 1,060 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing two games and much of a third with a leg injury.

Oklahoma Season Recap

Oklahoma’s 2014 and 2015 seasons both ended with losses to Tigers.

The stakes were a little lower this time around, but yet another Tigers team waited in New Orleans for this Sooners squad, eager to end the nine-game winning streak OU carried with it. Detractors said the streak was the product of luck and circumstance, a gift from the weakest Power Five conference in college football. OU fans said the streak was the result of improved health and the coalescence of one of the best offensive attacks in college football history.

But there was no way to know for sure until OU got out of conference territory and traveled to play Auburn for just the second time in program history.

The game started disappointingly—Auburn took the opening kick and promptly marched down the field for a 14 play, 75 yard touchdown drive. The Tigers weren’t doing anything we dabblers couldn’t have predicted—handing off to Kamryn Pettway, tossing the occasional short pass—but OU seemed unable to stop it. More than one Twitter account used the expression, “Like a knife through butter.” It looked like Oklahoma was in for a shootout, or worse.

But the defense stiffened. Improbably, inexplicably, the defense held firm for the next few drives even as the offense forced it quickly back onto the field. When OU got the ball for the third time, it finally strung together some positive plays as Lincoln Riley got Joe Mixon involved as both a runner and short pass-catcher. The Sooners got bogged down with penalties in their own half, and it looked like another punt was imminent. But OU overcame a 3rd-and-22 with a sideline pass to Joe and, from then on, the offense had its way with the overwhelmed Tigers.

Auburn could account for one, maybe two of Oklahoma’s weapons at a time. But the Tigers had no chance when Oklahoma began firing on all cylinders.

Mark Andrews hauled in the first touchdown catch to cap that drive, Baker Mayfield finding him, as usual, while scrambling to his right. The Tigers were able to re-take the lead with a deep drive and a field goal, but Oklahoma kept handing off and scored another touchdown before the half. OU would lead 14-13 at the break.

Things were still tense at halftime, but it seemed from every indication that the offense was beginning to find its way. Sure enough, the Sooners took the ball to start the second half, Andrews hauled in another big gain and Dede Westbrook, Mayfield’s go-to target all year, grabbed a 7-yard score to put OU up 21-13. The Sooners wouldn’t look back—and they wouldn’t allow Auburn to score again until the most garbage of garbage times.

The game’s end was its best part—not because Bob Stoops got doused in purple Gatorade, though that was pretty great—but because Sooners stalwart Samaje Perine became Oklahoma’s all-time leading rusher, the biggest gainer in a program filled with names like Billy Sims and Adrian Peterson. Perine has taken something of a backseat this year, sometimes injured and often simply overshadowed. But it’s impossible to overstate what he has meant to the OU program. Perine was a rare ray of light in the dark 2014 season that turned into an amazing run under Mayfield. Perine broke the rushing record despite sharing the backfield with one of America’s most talented players the last two years.

Whatever he decides to do now—and I’d love to have one last rodeo with the full gang—Perine’s place in OU history is firmly etched.

And so is this team’s. Lots of people, including me, gave Mike Stoops crap all season, but he finally found a combination—with young studs like Jordan Parker and Caleb Kelly—that keeps the defense respectable. Bob Stoops took a lot of grief for failing, again, to live up to his “Big Game Bob” moniker—but he managed to keep the team on track even though the fanbase said its season was over.

Lincoln Riley quieted the doubters who said he’d taken a step back. Baker Mayfield responded amazingly to iffy early-season performances. The team answered adversity after adversity with nothing but grit.

I don’t think it’s too much to say this team will expect another conference title next season, and maybe another shot at the ultimate prize. But Sooners fans should appreciate what this group did, first. Even when they knew it wouldn’t matter, that there was nothing they could do that would earn them another shot at the title, the 2016 Sooners turned their season around came together.

Here’s to the 2016 Sooners, and the Sooners to come.

Oklahoma Sooners Football: Sugar Bowl Recap

The Sooners took down Auburn to win the 2017 Sugar Bowl. Here’s how it happened.
by Steve Smith Jan 2, 2017, 11:58pm CST

The Sooners were the favorite in this game, but it didn’t look like it out of the gate. The Sooners got down early but fought their way back, eventually locking up a Sugar Bowl victory to finish the season 11-2. Here’s how it happened.

To open the game, Auburn moved down the field in what seemed like effortless fashion. They completed their only two pass attempts, and the running game cut through the defensive line like butter. It ended with an Auburn touchdown run to make the score 7-0.

Oklahoma’s responding drive lasted only five plays, and ended with a punt after OU declined to run the ball a single time. The OU defense, put in what many would think is an uncomfortable situation, was charged with holding down the fort. They did their job, though, holding Auburn to no yards in three plays and forcing a punt. The offense still wasn’t quite ready, and the Sooners punted the ball back four plays later. Another great defensive performance held Auburn to a punt, and from there it was on.

The Sooners embarked on a 14-play drive that featured some big penalties and a third-and-22. The Sooners found a way to make things happen, though, and Baker Mayfield found Joe Mixon on a wheel route to convert the first down. The Sooners looked to be knocking at the door before another 15-yard penalty moved them back to the 20 yard line, but by now the offense seemed destined to score. Two plays later, Mayfield ran around in the backfield before finding Mark Andrews for a 13-yard touchdown, in typical Mayfield fashion.

Auburn drove down for a field goal to retake the lead, but it wouldn’t be enough. The Sooners took some big plays to get into enemy territory. They sputtered a bit, but Bob Stoops decided to go for it on fourth-and-four. It led to Mayfield, running for his life from the Auburn defensive line, finding Dede Westbrook in stride for a 26-yard strike. Mixon ran it in on the next play for a three-yard touchdown, putting the Sooners up 14-10 and giving them a lead they’d never give back.

Auburn drove down to end the half, now being led by John Franklin, III after a game-ending injury to starting quarterback Sean White. Auburn looked like they might find the end zone, but the defense held strong and held them to a field goal. After OU ran the clock out to end the half, the Sooners went into the locker room up 14-13.

The offense picked up where they left off to start the second half, scoring on a six-play, 75-yard drive. Mayfield completed passes to Mixon, Jeffrey Mead, and Andrews before finding Westbrook for a seven-yard touchdown pass to put OU up 21-13.

The defense showed that the Big 12 isn’t as soft as some would have you believe as they forced Auburn into two three-and-outs on their next two possessions. It gave the offense enough time to put together another touchdown drive, highlighted by a long run from Mixon, a long pass to Andrews, and finally a four-yard touchdown run by Mixon.

At least, those were the highlights if you ignore context.

After another Auburn punt to end a three-play drive, up 28-13, Oklahoma kept their foot on the pedal. A 26-yard pass to Geno Lewis, immediately followed by a personal foul by Auburn, set the Sooners up in good position. Mayfield broke off runs of 13 and ten yards, and Samaje Perine finished the drive with a two-yard touchdown from the wild cat.

Auburn drove 63 yards on their next drive to try to give the game some semblance of closeness, but Jordan Thomas intercepted Jeremy Johnson (in relief of Franklin) in the end zone.

Oklahoma would not score on its next possession, but it was still the most important drive of the day for OU. Perine began the drive needing 30 yards to pass Billy Sims as the all-time rushing leader in OU history. He began the drive with a two-yard loss, but then broke off runs of four and 16 yards to bring him within twelve yards of Sooner history. The next play, Perine broke to the left and picked up 15 yards, making Samaje Perine the most decorated rusher ever to play at Oklahoma. I think I speak for Sooner Nation when I say it couldn’t have happened to a better player. Congratulations.

OU called a timeout to celebrate, and the drive would ultimately end in a punt. the game ended as Auburn scored a meaningless touchdown, going as far as to call two timeouts (one with two seconds remaining) in order to try to boost their score. It worked, but it didn’t matter. The game was already over, and the Sooners came out on top.

Mayfield was incredible once again, repeatedly avoiding sacks and buying time with his feet before eventually making plays with his arm. He ended the game 19/28 with 296 yards, two touchdowns, and no turnovers. The Sooner rushing attack got things going in the second half, and finished the game with 228 yards and three touchdowns at a pace of 5.3 yards-per-carry.

Meanwhile, the OU defense performed well all game. Four pass-throwers for Auburn combined for only 154 yards, a lone touchdown, and an interception. The touchdown was thrown by running back Kerryon Johnson on the last second trick play to give Auburn their extra points. The highly touted Auburn running attack did manage 185 yards, but only one touchdown, and averaged four yards per rush.

All told, Oklahoma bounced back from a rocky start to finish the game looking like the more physical and more explosive team. Their 35-19 win is an excellent achievement after a season that started 1-2, and there’s a lot to look forward to next year.