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OU football: Oklahoma is hitting its stride and looks like a College Football Playoff team, but will it be?

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Kenneth Murray

Junior linebacker Kenneth Murray celebrates a turnover during the Bedlam game against Oklahoma State Nov. 30.

Rat poison. 

That's what Jalen Hurts and No. 7 Oklahoma think of the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn. That's also what they think of all this College Football Playoff talk. 

For the Sooners, who just put together their best performance of the season in a 34-16 win over No. 21 Oklahoma State, they're focused on being 1-0 each week. 

"Sounds like rat poison to me," Hurts said. "Got to focus on Baylor this week."

With No. 5 Alabama and No. 8 Minnesota falling Saturday, Oklahoma's playoff hopes are as high as ever. The only thing that stands in the Sooners' way is Baylor in the Big 12 Championship, a one-loss Utah and the potential for an upset in the SEC Championship game between No. 2 LSU and No. 4 Georgia. 

Oklahoma doesn't necessarily control its own destiny, but it has to be feeling optimistic with the way things are playing out. As for themselves, well, the Sooners are playing their best ball of the season. 

"We know the intent that we have, the standard we have and how we want to play, the style of football we want to play," Hurts said. "It’s about going out there and executing and finishing. Talk about maybe finishing drives or finishing football plays or finishing games in general. That’s what we want to do, and I think we took another step with that today. Room to improve like always, but we’ll take this win."

Since losing to Kansas State, Oklahoma had played inconsistently. It needed a Parnell Motley interception on a 2-point conversion to beat Iowa State, 42-41. It needed a historic 25-point comeback to beat Baylor, 34-31. And it needed a late interception by Brendan "Bookie" Radley-Hiles to beat TCU, 28-24.

But Saturday, against maybe one of their toughest opponents this season, the Sooners put it all together — offense, defense, special teams. 

"It was great. It’s fun. I mean, the other ones are fun, too, but certainly nice to win one with a little bit of a comfortable margin," coach Lincoln Riley said. "I think you’re constantly evolving. I mean, there’s a lot of things we’re doing really, really well right now, and we can still play a lot better, too. We’re excited about that. I know our best is still out there, and we’re chasing that, but we’re taking some big steps."

Oklahoma, unlike in years past, is winning games on the back of its defense. First-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has completely rebuilt a Sooner defense that finished 101st in total defense a year ago. 

This year? 26th. 

"The thing I notice is they’re talking like us now. They talk like the coaching staff," Grinch said. "They’re saying the things before we have to say them, in terms of avoiding the noise and not making evaluations, that’s been a big part of it. You can only win the game in the fourth quarter. All those things we keep kind of hitting them over the head with, now they’re hitting us with them, which is a positive."

Grinch has changed the culture at Oklahoma defensively. But he knows there's still more games to play. 

"I won’t go there," Grinch said. "I won’t go there 'cause we got one game left, and we talked about one-game evaluations, and we’re going to stick to that as we go. I thought tonight was good and we got to play our best game, and it is going to require our best game to call us champions."

As for Riley's offense, it's changed. He's impressively taken Hurts and completely changed his offense to cater to Hurts' running skillset. Riley has turned the Sooners into one of the best ground attacks in college football. 

Riley's offense, while it doesn't look like his offenses of the past, is hitting its stride at the perfect time. 

"I think some of it’s been just the way the games have gone here as of late. I think some of it is what was a new, inexperienced offensive line is starting to come together and do some really, really good things, and then I think settling in on Kennedy (Brooks) on the feature back has been part of it," Riley said. "We’ve always wanted to get him involved. Like I’ve said, there’s going to be points in the season where we’re gonna have to have him, we’re gonna need him, and we’re gonna use him like that, and we’ve seen it the last couple of weeks, and he and our offensive line have done a nice job with the run game.”

Riley, Grinch and the Sooners know they have a tough game ahead in No. 9 Baylor, which is likely why coaches and players showed little emotion after the Bedlam win. Oklahoma still has business to take care of. 

And it starts on Saturday in Arlington. 

"Our recipe has just been winning," Riley said after the game on TV. "Whether it's by one, whether it's by 40, whatever it is. You have to win big games in November. We've been able to do that the last several years. We've put ourselves in position.

"We've done it again, and we're going to go try to win another one next week."

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I joined The Daily in the fall of 2016 as a sophomore. I've covered the soccer team, both men's and women's basketball, as well as the football team for the past two years. I have been the sports editor since spring 2018.

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