If you have enjoyed watching the 2016 Oklahoma Sooners play football—which is to say, if you are the type of fan capable of forgiving a defense that might charitably be described as iffy if it’s paired with an offense that might accurately be described as angelic, revelatory, and laying bare for the very first time certain heretofore hidden but suddenly and beautifully obvious universal truths—then you can likely bring to mind any number of specific moments from their season. Oklahoma is a team designed to create big-M Moments: 25-yard strikes and 60-yard bombs, breath-catching end-arounds, runs that start up the middle and finish up, half a field later, in a flurry of cutbacks and a touchdown. The Sooners have produced more offense, by whichever measure you like, than any other power-conference team. They have scored points every way they can be scored, except for the boring ones.
My favorite Sooner moment was not, strictly speaking, a play at all. It came early in the the Red River Shootout, the October 8 game against the Texas Longhorns at the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, seconds after a Samaje Perine run had ended with the concrete running back ramming his shoulder into the abdomen of a Texas linebacker. It was the third straight Perine carry, and the strategy’s effectiveness was so evident that Gus Johnson, calling the game for FOX, needed only to list his subject’s dimensions by way of praise. “Five-ten, two thirty-five,” Johnson growled in his enthusiastic tenor. No amount of addition could have improved the plain fact; there has never been a human more thoroughly, densely, undeniably 5’10”, 235 than Perine. Those are numbers that hurt if you try to stop them. Perine is a runner who does the same.
Oklahoma would put up 45 points that afternoon in what wound up being a five-point win, but Johnson’s terse portrait stuck with me most. Even more than the actual action, it captured the thrill of the Sooners. Their stars are hieroglyphically pure; they inhabit and represent their roles absolutely. Baker Mayfield, the virtuoso-doof quarterback, sports a Fu Manchu, runs the option, and slings throws to every sector of the field from all conceivable angles and arm-slots; he is a perfect college signal-caller. Dede Westbrook can run a 40-yard out in the time it took you to read this sentence. Perine lowers his helmet and makes would-be tacklers go woozy. Joe Mixon, Perine’s counterpart in Oklahoma’s two-back scheme—and, it should be said, a really lousy person—shimmies and turns tight quarters into open field. Seeing them all do their thing is part of the team’s appeal. The other part is wondering what they’ll do next, and the satisfaction of generally not having to wait all that long to find out.
Of course, for all its weekly majesty, Oklahoma’s season has a self-installed ceiling. In Week 1, the Sooners lost to the Houston Cougars, and when they got flattened by the Ohio State Buckeyes two weeks later their hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff were more or less kaput. Tearing through their Big 12 schedule undefeated earned them a conference title, but it also must have reminded coach Bob Stoops and his charges what they could have accomplished had they been a little bit more ready for their early games, or had they taken it a little easier on the September schedule.
Strangely, though, failing in their chief competitive purpose lent extra weight to the Sooners’ stylistic ones. If no caliber of football could make up for a 1-2 start in the playoff committee’s mind—and, sure enough, Oklahoma finished at number seven in the final rankings, well short of the pipe-dream fourth spot—that start at least livened up an ultimately doomed year. The stated purpose of the players may have been to claw their way back into the playoff picture, but the Sooners played as if to turn every game into the sort of spectacle they knew they wouldn’t get at year’s end, filling up buckets of points—66 once, 56 twice, anything below 30 a grand total of zero times during their conference schedule—and amassing a number of big ol’ blowouts.
Their last outing of the regular season, December 3’s Bedlam game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at OU’s home field in Norman, was representative. Some 24 hours before their disappointment became official with December 4’s playoff announcement, the Sooners distracted themselves by running roughshod over their in-state rivals. In a light rain befitting both the somberness of the occasion and the sometimes sloppy, seat-of-the-pants aspect of the Sooner attack, Oklahoma played the hits and got the party rocking. The Cowboys’ secondary stifled Mayfield’s early reads, so he scampered out of the pocket and heaved long, diagonal passes to receivers running improvised routes. Westbrook left the game in the second quarter with a concussion, but had already piled up 111 receiving yards by that point, including a 69-yard touchdown in which he caught the ball at a full sprint heading towards the sideline, stopped, sashayed past a defender, and reversed course for the end zone; Mayfield honored this one with an arms-out I’m an airplane! sprint that can be performed convincingly only by young children and Heisman trophy candidates. Perine and Mixon went where they wanted, the former at a pace of leisurely bulk and the latter in a twinkle-toed hurry, most notably when he buzzed 79 yards through every stratum of the OSU defense for the game’s final score. Oklahoma won 38-20.
It was a celebration—of a victory in a rivalry game and of a conference championship, sure, but mostly of the Sooners’ ability to celebrate. That kind of self-insistence, along with lit-up scoreboards all across the Plains states, had for months kept joy in a season sure to end up as a bit of a downer, and it did so once again when the gut punch was imminent. You can feel only so glum when you’re ripping the other team to confetti.
On January 2, Oklahoma will cap its year against the Auburn Tigers in the Sugar Bowl. The important stuff will bookend that date; the playoff semifinals are a couple days prior, the championship game a week later. It is likely, though, that no 2016 bowl game, national title deciders included, will be more exuberant than the one featuring the Sooners. They may not have preferred the circumstance, but they now have plenty of practice at making the most of it.