Time to take Oklahoma — and the Big 12 — seriously in CFP race

COLUMBUS, Ohio — First-year Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, who turned 34 years old Tuesday and is the youngest head coach in the FBS, won the first road game of his career, a convincing 31-16 win on No. 2 Ohio State’s home turf, and its impact will last as long as the season.

In a game that pitted a rookie coach against a veteran in Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and showcased two of the nation’s top quarterbacks in OU’s Baker Mayfield and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, the Sooners came out on top with youth in every corner.

With tight end Mark Andrews knocked out of the game with an apparent knee injury, Oklahoma turned to a walk-on, redshirt sophomore receiver, Lee Morris, and a true freshman, Trey Sermon, to help earn what could arguably be the best nonconference win of the season.

Oklahoma took a 17-13 lead in the third quarter after Mayfield threw a 42-yard pass to sophomore Mykel Jones, setting up an 18-yard touchdown pass to Morris, whose first career reception came against UTEP last week. In the fourth quarter, Mayfield connected with Sermon for a 10-yard touchdown reception that put OU ahead 24-13.

It wasn’t until Barrett was intercepted, though, with 11:06 remaining, that the game seemed to be entirely in Oklahoma’s control.

It’s a vastly different position for the Sooners from this time a year ago, when their loss to the Buckeyes essentially eliminated them from the CFP conversation in the third week of the season.

Since the College Football Playoff began in 2014, the 10-team Big 12 has struggled to find its place. TCU dropped from No. 3 to No. 6 in the first year. Oklahoma was a semifinalist in 2015 but couldn’t overcome a 1-2 start last year despite going on to run the table and win the Big 12.

Should OU win the league again, this is the kind of nonconference game that could help separate the Sooners from another Power 5 conference champion on Dec. 3, when the 13 members of the CFP selection committee determine the top four teams in the country.

Oklahoma has now won 12 straight games since last year’s loss to Ohio State, the nation’s longest current winning streak and the first time the Sooners have won that many games consecutively since the 2004 season.

The game was tied 3-3 at the half, but it felt as if Oklahoma should have had a lead that reflected its 222-92 edge in total yardage. OU failed to get into the Buckeyes’ territory on just one drive.

For all of the talk about Ohio State’s defensive line heading into the game, it was the Sooners’ defense that had the edge. The Buckeyes can certainly overcome the loss if they go on to run the table and win the Big Ten, but their margin for error has been drastically diminished.

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