WACO, Texas—Eric Striker paused for a moment Saturday night. "Let me try to explain how good this feels," the Oklahoma senior linebacker said.
Then Striker offered his explanation of how the Sooners' 44–34 win at Baylor felt for a team that had been clobbered by the Bears in each of the previous two seasons. "You ever been out all day, working in camp or working on something?" Striker asked no one in particular. "You ain't been home all day. You're in the humidity and everything. It's just hot. You feel the stickiness—the funkiness—because you've been out all day. Then you get home and take that shower. You get out of the shower and just kind of go, 'Hooooooooooooooooo. Man, that feels good.' The Sooners should feel refreshed, because they look like a new team. They barely resemble the team that needed a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Tennessee 31–24 in double overtime on Sept. 12. They look nothing like the team that got humbled by Texas 24–17 in Dallas on Oct. 12. The question now is whether the College Football Playoff selection committee will recognize the difference between the October Sooners and the November Sooners. If there is a team 2015 Oklahoma (9–1) resembles, it might be '14 Ohio State. Last year, the Buckeyes lost at home in September to a Virginia Tech team that ultimately lost six games. By early December, Ohio State bore little resemblance to the group that lost to the Hokies. Could Oklahoma—with its loss to a Texas outfit that will likely finish 5-7 or 4-8—be on a similar path?
After the Texas loss, Sooners coach Bob Stoops invoked last season's Buckeyes. He knew his team was better than it had shown during a seven-point defeat at the Cotton Bowl. Stoops hoped his players would believe it, too. "That was really the first thing that coach Stoops told us in the locker room after the Texas game," Oklahoma junior quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "We took that to heart. Ever since then, we've just been grinding it out."
Even Saturday night, after he accounted for 346 yards with four touchdowns—including the game-clinching pass on a third-and-goal from the seven-yard line when a field goal might have opened the door for the Bears—Mayfield was asked to explain the Texas loss. "Trying to do too much," Mayfield said. He did not mention that an offensive line that was mostly new this season has jelled or that defenders such as senior end Charles Tapper (six sacks in Oklahoma's past three games) have hit their stride, but that overall improvement was heavily implied. "We've kind of come together," Mayfield said. "We've meshed well, and we realize that's not how we should play. We know the standard now."
While the Texas loss continues to hang over the Sooners, it may not matter if they keep winning and chaos keeps picking off potential rivals for playoff spots. On Saturday, Stanford's 38–36 loss to Oregon and Utah's 37–30 double-overtime defeat at Arizona guaranteed the Pac-12 would have at best a two-loss champion. That thins the herd. LSU's 31–14 loss to Arkansas means Alabama and Florida are probably the only two SEC teams that remain in contention for a playoff spot. Assuming Alabama clinches the SEC West by beating Auburn on Nov. 28, either the Crimson Tide or the Gators will hand the other a loss in Atlanta. (And Florida may yet lose to Florida State on Nov. 28.) A Michigan State win at Ohio State next Saturday or an Ohio State loss at Michigan on Nov. 28 could further complicate the playoff picture for the Big Ten teams. And Notre Dame, which suffered its only loss at top-ranked Clemson, must play at Stanford on Nov. 28. That's no gimme. So, even with an ugly loss, Oklahoma doesn't seem to need much help if it keeps winning.
That remains the biggest if. The Sooners still must beat TCU and Oklahoma State—current combined record: 19–1—in consecutive weeks. Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson said Saturday that he expects senior quarterback Trevone Boykin to play in Norman even though Boykin missed the final three quarters of TCU's win 23–17 win over Kansas with an ankle injury. Meanwhile, the Bears will try to bounce back from their loss to the Sooners in Stillwater against the undefeated Cowboys.
While the Sooners can control how they play, they cannot control how the selection committee members perceive it. They entered the weekend at No. 12 in the committee's rankings and will certainly move up after beating the No. 6 team on the road. Where they rank relative to Oklahoma State will be irrelevant because if both teams win next week, they'll face off for the Big 12 title in Bedlam on Nov. 28. The bigger question will be where Oklahoma ranks relative to Notre Dame. Should the Fighting Irish win out, they might wind up with wins over both Pac-12 title game participants (USC and Stanford) and both American Athletic Conference title game participants (Navy and Temple). Notre Dame also beat Texas 38–3 in its season-opener on Sept. 5, and the committee is supposed to compare common opponents. But the committee is also supposed to take into account championships won. In this scenario, Oklahoma would have a conference title and Notre Dame, an independent, would not. Neither would have the apparently magical 13th data point, though.
The problem with speculating what the selection committee will do is we have no idea what the selection committee will do. Yes, the committee placed a team in the bracket last year that had lost at home to a six-loss team. That doesn't mean it will act the same way with a similar team this year. Yes, the committee left the Big 12's two best teams just outside of the bracket last year. That doesn't mean it will hold some sort of grudge against the Big 12's champ this year. The committee has seeded the field exactly once, and any attempt to use a one-time occurrence to predict future behavior is probably fruitless.
Oklahoma's Striker offered the best plan for predicting the bracket on Saturday night. "Let whoever handles that handle that stuff," he said. All the Sooners can concern themselves with now is TCU. And if they keep winning, everything else might take care of itself. "We're one of those teams that has a chance," Stoops said. "We're going to keep trying to improve and give ourself an opportunity next week to play as well or better. Again, you come into an undefeated team's [stadium] ranked that high waiting on you like they were and win by 10, it's got to be a positive."
Projected College Football Playoff
1. Alabama (9–1)
I went back and forth about whether to leave Clemson at No. 1 or replace the Tigers with the Crimson Tide, but the question I kept coming back to was this: Based on what we've seen this season, who do I think would win if those two teams met on a neutral field? The answer at the moment is Alabama. After watching the Tide clobber LSU on Nov. 7, I wondered if that performance was Alabama's peak or its new normal. After Saturday's 31–6 rout of Mississippi State, it's quite possible this level of suffocation is to be expected from the Tide.
2. Clemson (10–0)
The Tigers let Syracuse hang around into the fourth quarter of a 37–27 win, and a bit of a letdown on the road is certainly understandable after a victory as big as the one against Florida State the previous week. Still, it's tough to picture anyone beating Alabama given the way the Crimson Tide are playing of late. Even though someone already beat Alabama and no one has beaten Clemson, the Tide seem to have found another gear. Besides, if I'm wrong, the Tigers would have a chance to prove that in the playoff.
3. Oklahoma State (10–0)
Yes, the Cowboys needed another comeback to beat Iowa State 35–31. But they still have a top-notch win over a TCU team that then featured a healthy Boykin. Did the trip to Ames expose some potential issues? Sure. But with games against Baylor and Oklahoma coming up in the next two weeks, the Cowboys will either maintain their grip on this spot or show why someone else should take it.
4. Notre Dame (9–1)
The Irish just keep rolling. They'll face Boston College this week before traveling to Stanford for their regular-season finale on Nov. 28. Should Notre Dame finish 11–1, it will have a decent shot of getting in the playoff as long as there aren't three undefeated Power Five conference champions. Why do I have the one-loss Irish ranked ahead of Ohio State? Because the Buckeyes have yet to face a tough opponent, and they have been underwhelming in most of the games they've played. If they whip up on Michigan State, then they could leapfrog one or two of the teams I have listed here. We know Ohio State has talent. It just needs to show how good that talent can be against quality competition. It'll get its chance this week.