Thought a rematch between No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 7 Baylor was a stale storyline for the Big 12 Championship Game? Think again. The first Power Five conference title game of Saturday went to overtime with the Sooners prevailing in a back-and-forth battle 30-23. Unless No. 4 Georgia beats No. 2 LSU in the SEC Championship Game, the Sooners should be College Football Playoff-bound. It would mark the fourth straight trip to the playoff for quarterback Jalen Hurts, dating back to his days at Alabama. It also marks Oklahoma's fifth straight Big 12 title.
This was a battle from start to finish. Unlike in November when Baylor jumped out to an early lead, it was Oklahoma that started fast with 10 straight points. However, a string of turnovers led to 10 points for the Bears, who went into halftime with a 13-10 lead. Even more impressive was the fact that Baylor took a lead without quarterback Charlie Brewer, who was knocked out for the game in the second quarter with an unspecified injury. Gerry Bohanon came off the bench, and while he did throw a touchdown pass, was unable to sustain any kind of success. He was then replaced in the second half by third-stringer Jacob Zeno, who immediately injected life into Baylor's offense.
The Big 12 title was a game of momentum and scoring streaks. After falling behind 13-10, Oklahoma rattled off 13 straight points in the third quarter. That was followed by 10 fourth-quarter points by the Bears. It was as even as a game could be, but in the end, the Sooners found a way to win in overtime.
Here's what else we learned from Saturday's thriller in Jerry World ...
Oklahoma's defense won the day: This has been the theme for most of the season, honestly. Oklahoma, for reasons unknown, continues to get a bad rap among some college football talking heads for a lack of defense. Sure, there were misfires this season, namely in the loss to Kansas State. Overall, though, first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has done a remarkable job turning this group around. Take Saturday, for example. Baylor had 265 yards of total offense. Exactly 159 of those yards -- or 60 percent -- came on two long pass plays. Outside of those two passes, along with one other fluky first down pass from Bohanon, the Sooners' defense played well. In fact, you can say they bailed out the offense. Oklahoma had three turnovers in the first half, all of which came in their own territory. Baylor got 10 points off of those turnovers. Not great, but certainly not as bad as it could have been. Hurts, specifically, has actually been doing a lot of harm to Oklahoma's chances over the past month or so. Against Baylor alone, he's turned the ball over five times, and he's accounted for plenty more over the course of the year. Still, Oklahoma finishes the season ranked third in the Big 12 in points per game and first in total defense.
Sorry, but you can't say Oklahoma has been let down by its defense. If anything, it's been elevated by it.
Matt Rhule worked one of college football's best turnarounds: You can look at this from a micro and macro level. That the Bears were even in a position to win this game 1) with a third-string quarterback, 2) without any kind of consistent offense and 3) without a single catch from stud wideout Denzel Mims says a lot about how their defense balled out. But that's been the M.O. for Baylor all year: play good D, keep it close and give yourself a chance to win late. It's no coincidence this is the seventh game this season decided by eight points or fewer. Baylor is 5-2 in those games, with both losses to the Sooners. Rhule also deserves tons of credit for even guiding Baylor to the Big 12 Championship Game. This may not be a time for moral victories, but this program was 1-11 just two seasons ago. Today, it was one play away from winning a conference championship. Rhule has one of the best defensive lines (and defenses) in college football and clearly gets all his guys to buy in. This has been a top-heavy season for Coach of the Year candidates, but Rhule has to be up there on the short list.
The legend of Jacob Zeno was nearly a thing: Oh, what could have been for Zeno. The true freshman came off the bench in the fourth quarter and immediately lit a fire underneath a struggling Baylor offense. He completed his first two passes for 159 yards, including this 81-yard bomb to Trestan Ebner.
Turns out, those would be the only two passes he would complete, finishing 2-of-6 passing on the day. Still, he came in at the right time and gave Baylor an opportunity to not only get back in the game, but win. The Sooners got pressure on Baylor's quarterbacks all day, and that eventually was the difference for Zeno as he scrambled for his life in overtime, but it was fun to fantasize for a minute about the story this would have been.
Has the Big 12 Championship Game really helped?: This is an interesting debate. If LSU beats Georgia in Atlanta later today as expected, Oklahoma will be in the playoff. It seems pretty cut-and-dry, no matter what some people might argue. However, would Oklahoma have been in the playoff if Utah had won the Pac-12 Championship on Friday night? That seems less cut-and-dry. The Big 12 reinstated its conference title game three years ago to put itself on a level playing field with its Power Five brethren. I get why -- it's a good money grab and an easy platform to stand on -- but the reality is it hasn't made a difference in the playoff era. The Big 12 champion still needs other things to happen elsewhere for it to be included in the playoff this season. Oklahoma didn't really need it in 2017, either, when it dismantled TCU. The best case for it was last year when Oklahoma beat Texas, but that was more of an exclamation point on the season; the Sooners were probably in without that extra game. Moreover, Oklahoma didn't need the 13th data point in 2015 when it made the playoff before the return of the Big 12 title.
Bringing back the game has been a generally fun addition to the conference. But I'm not sure it's actually accomplished what it was designed to do -- at least tangibly. Chasing a 13th data point to please a selection committee that doesn't use concrete criteria is fool's gold.