It was only a few minutes into last season’s Sugar Bowl postgame news conference when somebody asked Oklahoma players about the national narrative – that being that the Big 12 is to the SEC what cute little gerbils are to the animal kingdom.
Bob Stoops, the Oklahoma coach who had a tendency to place “SEC” and “propaganda” in the same sentence, waited patiently for one of his players to respond to the question. Then he pounced.
“Maybe just bury that narrative,” he said.
Is it that time?
Few who live, work and breathe college football in the Southeast would ever entertain the thought that the Big 12 measures up against the SEC, unless we’re talking about Vanderbilt, because they don’t count. But Stoops retired in the offseason after thumping Auburn 35-19 in last season’s Sugar Bowl. His Sooners also jumped on Alabama for 31 first-half points and won 45-31 in the Sugar Bowl in 2013. (Nobody needs to remind Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who was Alabama’s defensive coordinator.) Stoops was 4-0 against the SEC down the stretch of his career, and he won a national championship (2000).
But this week, the narrative gets new life. A physical, run-heavy Georgia team faces an Oklahoma team that seems straight out of the fireworks box. The Sooners are led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield and average 583 yards and 45 points per game.
The Sooners (12-1) were 4-0 against ranked teams, including 31-16 over Ohio State. They are the higher playoff seed in this game. But they can’t even get respect from others in college football. They were mocked as a legitimate title contender after a 65-52 late-season win over Oklahoma State from even Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.
After his team’s physical game against Navy, Kelly said, “If you want to see 62-52, go to your local Big 12 Network. This was just good tough football."
The suggestion being, the Big 12 is a video game.
The conference has shot itself in the foot a few times. It failed to appease long-time members and was left doubled-over by conference Armageddon (Nebraska left for the Big Ten, Texas A&M and Missouri for the SEC, Colorado for the Pac-12). The losses prompted them to drop their championship game for six years, which hurt them in bowl placement. And yes, their lack of a major network deal robbed them of a mouthpiece like, say, the SEC (see: ESPN, CBS).
But even with more wide-open offenses, football still has a major smash-mouth element to it, and that’s where scores like 65-52 impact the perception of Oklahoma and the Big 12 in general.
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said, “We don't pay attention to it much.”
Really? Because it hasn’t been difficult to illicit responses from his team this week regarding the topic.
Running back Rodney Anderson: “I honestly think that it motivates us. The Big 12 isn’t some little brother.”
Tackle Orlando Brown, from Duluth: “We understand we’re not going to get credit. No disrespect to the other conferences, but I think the Big 12 is the best conference in college football.”
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, the brother of Bob Stoops and Kentucky coach Mark Stoops: “I’m not going to talk like my brother, Bob. I don’t want to get everyone riled up again. But we know what good defense is. Nobody has to tell me or our players what’s acceptable and what isn’t.”
What of conference perception?
“We’re over that; we’ve proven our point,” Stoops said. “I mean, how many times do you have to prove it? I don’t think Georgia thinks that we’re not a Southeastern Conference team so we can’t play with them. We’re Oklahoma. We match up with anybody.”
There’s something to be said for the fact the Big 12’s offenses are naturally going to make defense’s seem weak.
“I don’t think the Big 12 should be labeled as a conference that doesn’t play defense. The Big 12 runs air-raid offenses that are really hard to stop,” Oklahoma tight end Mark Andrews said.
Counterpoint: If defenses were better, wouldn’t the final scores of games seem less like a cartoon?
Simple analysis in this game is that if Georgia’s defense is physical with Oklahoma’s front and can run the ball effectively to extend drives, the Sooners are in trouble. But that’s the case in almost every football game. TCU had the best defense in the Big 12 this season, and Oklahoma defeated the Horned Frogs twice, scoring 79 points (38-20 and 41-17).
This is where we point out that TCU’s conference-leading scoring defense of 17.6 points would rank fourth in the SEC. Oklahoma allowed 25 points per game, fourth in the Big 12 but theoretically seventh in the SEC.
The Sooners had five games this season in which they allowed 41, 38, 35, 52 and 31 points, but the only loss among those was 38-31 to Iowa State.
Smart said he doesn’t reference the narrative to his players, “because the tape speaks for itself. We played a TCU team last year that we thought was physical. They came out and stoned our offense for essentially three quarters. We played up-tempo teams before that scored a lot of points. That Oklahoma team (four) years ago torched a good Alabama defense. We know they've got physical players on defense.”
Bob Stoops, who coached in the SEC as Florida’s defensive coordinator before he was hired at Oklahoma, loved jabbing his former conference. Ironically, Smart had him speak to Georgia players earlier this season, prompting Riley to comment, “We had a laugh about it once they announced the pairings. But he told me he didn't give them anything good.”
The subject of the talk was dealing with success and focusing on each week.
Said Smart, “I remember it vividly, but I doubt our players remember anything because (similar talks) last about two seconds.”
If Oklahoma wins, Stoops will have more to say.