Oklahoma proves Big 12 doesn't lack toughness in earning likely College Football Playoff bid

ARLINGTON, Texas – The Big 12 missed a golden opportunity for a slam-dunk corporate sponsor for its championship game: The nearest urgent care. 

No. 6 Oklahoma is likely back in the College Football Playoff but it had a worthy partner Saturday in shattering stereotypes. The go-to analysis is the league that has produced the last two Heisman winners is offense first, finesse always and laughed at behind its back. 

"There is a narrative out there that the SEC is a different animal," OU quarterback Jalen Hurts said, "but the Big 12 is tough."

So tough that No. 7 Baylor was down to its third quarterback in Saturday's 30-23 overtime loss to the Sooners. So tough that it almost didn't matter. Freshman Jacob Zeno had spent the week as Baylor's scout team quarterback imitating Hurts until Friday – when he was a safety.

"Good Lord," said Alex Grinch, OU's defensive coordinator, when he found out.

After both Baylor starting quarterback Charlie Brewer (head) and backup Gerry Bohanon (knee) went down, in stepped Zeno, the pride of John Jay High School in San Antonio, Texas. 

"Zeno didn't throw a pass all week for us," Matt Rhule said.

At one point the freshman who had thrown three career passes was two for three for 159 yards against the league's best defense.

That label isn't laugh inducing anymore. In fact, the Big 12's two best defenses met for a winner-take-all contest, it turned out, for a playoff spot. 

"Sometimes legends are born," Rhule added.

Zeno and Baylor just missed being those legends. OU posted another chapter to its legendary program. 

Like the old days, they did it with defense. It was a well -kept secret that the Sooners' D had gone from worst to first in the Big 12 this season. The average of 336 yards allowed was 117 better per game under Grinch. 

The unit went from an epic second-half defensive collapse and overtime loss to Georgia two years ago in a CFP semifinal to 114th in the nation defensively in 2018. In midseason last year, Lincoln Riley fired Bob Stoops' brother Mike Stoops as his defensive coordinator.

With Grinch, the Sooners came into Saturday 26th in total D. 

They sacrificed their bodies doing it. Linebacker Kenneth Murray – an All-America candidate – left the game briefly. He returned to post a 10-tackle game. At halftime he had seven solo tackles, tied for the second most in his career.

Safety Pat Fields dragged down a Baylor runner by his dreadlocks. There is no rule against it. 

"This week [Grinch] was talking about climbing the mountain," Fields said. "Whenever you get to the top of the mountain a lot of people they die or they quit at the top of the mountain. 

"At the same time we're becoming better men. We're learning how to handle adversity, difficult situations."

"Whenever you get to the top of the mountain a lot of people they die or they quit at the top of the mountain."Oklahoma safety Pat Fields

Cornerback Tre Brown might have made the biggest play of the game. Late in the fourth quarter with the Sooners leading by three Brown hauled down Baylor receiver Chris Platt after a gain of 78 on a pass from Zeno.

The stop at the OU 17 helped limit the Bears to a game-tying field goal that sent the game into overtime. 

"That was big time. It was an explosive play," Fields said. "But we had to make them count in threes. They couldn't score touchdowns …

"Coach Grinch always said, 'You can't beat the University of Oklahoma kicking field goals.' " 

The Sooners needed every bit of that grit. During the week Grinch put on film of Michael Jordan's famous 38-point game against the Utah Jazz while playing with the flu.

"The message was, you're not always going to feel good," Fields said. "The back half, the year guys are playing hurt." 

The Big 12 earned every bit of praise for Saturday's spectacular show. If the playoff ever expands the league has provided a sneak peak as to how it's going to look.

The Big 12 has developed a blueprint for playoff excellence by matching its No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the standings. 

No division winners. In an eight-team bracket they're still going to take the eight best teams, not conference champs because the game's legitimacy can't support an 8-4 division winner beating an undefeated conference rival.

These two teams measured themselves against each other, sharpened their games to the point the championship had to be decided in overtime to decide a playoff spot. 

Because of the conference set up, in any given season, the winner of the Big 12 is more likely to go to the playoff. It has happened three straight times since the conference brought the championship game back in 2017.

Thanks to Oregon's upset of Utah Friday night in the Pac-12 Championship Game, Saturday was winner-take-all.

What Oklahoma accomplished this season should not be underplayed. It beat ranked teams in three of its last four games. The Sooners swept Baylor. In doing so the defense shut out the Bears in the second half of the first meeting, limiting them to 16 plays in the final 30 minutes.

Without the guidance of Brewer, Baylor ran for only 35 yards on Saturday. 

That meant something. Fields recounted the insults he and the Oklahoma D had suffered.

"It's something I've had to manage this year because you had people [on Twitter] you telling you, 'You're terrible, you're garbage, you're dumb,' " Fields said.  

"You've got to block out the noise."

Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jalen Redmond wandered the confetti-littered field afterward with tears in his eyes. 

Redmond missed the Bedlam game against Oklahoma State last week for "medical reasons." Earlier this season he was sidelined with blood clots. 

"I shouldn't even be here," he said. 

Redmond finished with 2 ½ tackles for loss, including sharing a sack with teammate Nik Bonitto that was the dagger. Zeno lost 10 yards on third-and-10 in overtime. His final pass floated incomplete. 

That sealed it for Oklahoma's fifth-year seniors who now have five Big 12 championship rings. The last Power Five program to win five straight outright league titles was Alabama from 1971-1975.

Those fifth-year seniors are about to play in their third consecutive playoff. Hurts is heading for his fourth straight playoff with his second team.

"If I ever would ever thought as a true freshman starting for Coach (Nick) Saban, winning at SEC championship, going to a national championship that I would be a Big 12 champion with the Oklahoma Sooner in three years …," Hurts said. "But God works in mysterious ways."

It will be a different Oklahoma in this playoff as a likely No. 4 seed. The defense has proven it can hang around enough to push Oklahoma through the bracket. 

The Sooners have to heal up. Hurts has to clean up his turnover problem. In eight quarters against Baylor this season he has turned it over six times. There were two more in the first half Saturday that led to points.

Baylor has 30 takeaways this season, 20% of them have been from Hurts. 

And he was the survivor at the position. A game decided by seven points in overtime may have, fittingly, come down to that first-half injury to Brewer. 

"The officials came over to me and said, 'Hey coach, keep an eye on Charlie. He's out here talking to us, he's a little bit off,' " Rhule said. 

We told you there was attrition. Baylor will be back because Rhule has established something special in three short years in Waco, Texas.  

The Big 12 is back in the playoff because it has the right way to determine its championship and the right team winning it. Oklahoma is better for it on the field and in their own heads. 

"We've got a mentally tough football team," Riley said. "Just because you've been mentally tough, doesn't mean you're going to in this moment."

There is a playoff ahead left to prove it. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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