NORMAN — Unlikely as it seemed after a 1-2 start, a sixth consecutive Big 12 championship is in play for Oklahoma when it visits Arlington, Texas Saturday.
The Sooners, ranked No. 11 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings and have won six consecutive games since last losing on Oct. 3 at Iowa State. Redemption awaits the Sooners when they get a rematch with the seventh-ranked Cyclones at AT&T Stadium.
Though for the first time since the Big 12 reinstated its conference title game, the Sooners won’t be the conference’s No. 1 seed as they have been each of the past three years facing TCU in 2017, Texas in ‘18 and Baylor in ‘19 for the league’s crown.
The Cyclones, skippered by fifth-year coach Matt Campbell, claimed the league’s best regular-season mark, are finishing 8-1 in conference play. Iowa State isn’t much of a favorite, however, entering next weekend’s contest.
The Sooners opened as a 5-point favorite over the Cyclones, according to BetOnline.ag. And historically, Iowa State is just as much an underdog.
OU has made it to the Big 12 championship game 11 times prior to this season. It’s lost just one of those appearances — a stunning 2003 defeat to Kansas State.
This year will be Iowa State’s Big 12 championship game debut.
OU’s Lincoln Riley has been around programs, similar to the Cyclones, that have enjoyed those breakout seasons. The special place they have among non-traditional college football powers isn’t lost on the former Texas Tech and East Carolina assistant.
“It’s a fun thing when it comes together at a place that hasn’t experienced as much success like that in the past,” Riley said. “It takes a lot of things, it takes a lot of people, leadership. It takes buy-in. … It creates a great level of excitement.”
Campbell has built the Cyclones into more than just a one-season wonder in the Big 12. Iowa State went 3-9 under Campbell’s direction in 2016 — his first season in Ames. Iowa State won eight games the next two seasons, seven in 2019 and finished fourth or better in the league standings during those years.
The Cyclones finally got over the hump these season to making the league championship, where they will try to knock off OU a second time.
OU is a different team than what it was when it lost in Ames. The same can be said for Iowa State, forcing the Sooners to take a fresh look as they game plan for Round 2 with the Cyclones.
The one thing that seems clear from Riley’s last media session on Thursday is OU will go into Saturday expecting to win but not entitled to the championship it’s won year after year.
“We have ... kind of built around entitlement being the enemy of this program, the anti of everything we do and think about, so I don’t feel like it,” Riley said. “And then part of it, being in this position, is you always get everybody’s best. The second you start feeling entitled, you won’t be there. You’ll be watching somebody else on TV play in it.”
Perhaps OU proved that best by turning its season around after losing back-to-back games to Kansas State and Iowa State to start conference play.
It would have been easy for OU’s season to implode.
Instead, the Sooners lived up to Riley’s standards and they can continue to do that with a victory over the Cyclones.