ARLINGTON — For the first time in Lincoln Riley’s head coaching career, he didn’t compete in the College Football Playoff. The fourth-year head coach left AT&T Stadium on Wednesday night with a consolation prize after the Sooners routed Florida, 55-20, in the 2020 Cotton Bowl.
But what Riley witnessed was the team’s best performance this season and one of the most well-executed games one of his teams has ever played in its young history. He coached his squad from an 0-2 conference start and through an eventful and uncertain season plagued by a worldwide pandemic, and it was all capped by what OU fans have been wanting for years: domination from the Sooners’ offense and defense.
Riley and Sooner fans in Arlington and in front of TV screens back home witnessed a bright future for Oklahoma. After three-straight years of coming up just short of the national championship game, offense and defense — led by veteran and new faces on both sides — synced up to possibly foreshadow a dominant 2021 season, if most of the cast returns.
As of the night of the Cotton Bowl, the only departures from the Sooners are quarterback Tanner Mordecai, running back T.J. Pledger and receivers Finn Corwin and Jalin Conyers to the NCAA Transfer Portal, and cornerback Tre Brown to the NFL Draft. There could be more, as running back Rhamondre Stevenson and multiple defensive players have made cases that they can handle making the jump to the league.
But Riley knows the potential his team has if the right players stick around, and Wednesday night was proof.
“It's exciting about the way we finished,” Riley said. “I'm excited about what this team could be next year. … I like just the attitude and just kind of the overall environment within our team, within our program. I like where that’s at.
“It's going to be a great challenge to us to continue to climb, because these last several teams have really set the bar high and I think we all sense the opportunity ahead of us.”
The difference between the beginning of conference play in September and the demolishing of the Gators is gigantic. Oklahoma came into the Cotton Bowl averaging 154.2 rushing yards per game, which ranked No. 75 in the FBS.
The first half of the regular season — while Stevenson was serving an NCAA suspension for failing a drug test near the end of the 2019 season — was a lackluster rushing affair for the Sooners, who year-in and year-out produce NFL-caliber running backs. Fueled by Stevenson’s career-high 186 yards, the Sooner offense finished the bowl game with 435 yards on the ground — a season high.
The Sooner defense was a sight to see for the Big 12 defensive doubters all over the country. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s unit tallied three interceptions in the first quarter, the first being a redshirt junior Tre Norwood pick-six on Florida’s first drive of the game. The Sooners garnered their next two picks in the next two Florida drives. Florida quarterback Kyle Trask, a Heisman candidate, was stifled by the Sooner defense, as he finished the game with 158 passing yards on 16-of-28 passing before backup Emory Jones took over.
The Sooner offense fumbled twice in their own territory in the first half, but the defense made sure to hold Florida to field goals rather than touchdowns. From the second to the fourth quarter, the OU offense amassed six-straight scores in seven drives — five touchdowns and one field goal — in a timespan where the Sooner defense held Florida scoreless.
“I feel like this win specifically is going to get us going into next year,” said redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler, who finished the night with 247 passing yards, three touchdowns in the air and one rushing. “This was a game we wanted to come out here and, as coach Riley said, we wanted to make this a statement. And as a group, we did that well. And now, going into next year, we can be confident and just play clear-minded, cut it loose, and just play at 110 percent all the time and execute our job.”
With a statement game in the rearview mirror, the Sooners can draw from Wednesday night in the offseason and recall a season that they nearly maximized their most prominent abilities. If the right players stay, OU can expect much higher stakes heading into 2021.
"There's so much work that goes into this, and for these guys that are getting ready to make the jump to the NFL,” Riley said in a postgame interview with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt. “It feels great, but it'll never be like their experience in college. The majority of our NFL guys — even guys that were first-round picks, Heisman Trophy winners, guys that are All-Pros, this and that — every one of them when they come back, say, ‘Man, I wish I could play another game at OU.’"