(AP) – Oklahoma center Ty Darlington remembers this all-or-nothing feeling.
The No. 12 Sooners are set to play their three highest-ranked opponents in three straight weeks, starting Saturday at No. 4 Baylor. The rugged stretch reminds Darlington of the gauntlet of state high school playoffs.
”This is what you live for,” Darlington said. ”This is what you play for right here. I feel like I’m back in high school, and it’s one at a time. The next one doesn’t matter without the first one, and we can’t look past or look ahead to anything.”
After Saturday’s prime-time showdown, the Sooners will host No. 13 TCU and travel to No. 5 Oklahoma State. Winning out might get the Sooners (8-1, 5-1 Big 12, No. 12 CFP) into the College Football Playoff.
Baylor (8-0, 5-0, No. 6 CFP) has playoff aspirations, too. Plus, there’s extra motivation for the Sooners – the Bears routed them 48-14 in Norman last season and 41-12 two years ago.
”We know exactly what we’re up against, what they’ve done to us the last two years,” Darlington said. ”If you don’t got a knot in your stomach about it and if you haven’t had it there the entire offseason, I don’t think you really buy into what we’re doing as a team, because I think it’s been everywhere.”
The Sooners have defeated Kansas State, Texas Tech, Kansas and Iowa State by a combined 232-50, and have scored at least 50 points in four straight games for the first time since 2008.
”The way we’ve been playing, you have to feel confident – the way we’ve been executing, really, in all parts of the game,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. ”As much as anything, we’re playing together as a team. The offense has been moving the ball and putting pressure on the other team, the way they’re scoring and moving the ball, and defensively, coming up with pressure and turnovers and a lot of good stops. We’ve got to play that way Saturday.”
Baylor leads the nation in scoring offense, total offense and passing efficiency, but has its share of doubters with a freshman suddenly thrust into the role of starting quarterback.
However, it appears Jarrett Stidham could be a solid replacement for the injured Seth Russell. Stidham threw for 419 yards and three touchdowns in his first start, a 45-38 win over Kansas State last week.
”You really can’t even tell. He’s really confident,” star receiver Corey Coleman said. ”He acts like he’s played college football for two years already.”
Stidham had appeared in every game for the two-time defending Big 12 champion Bears before top-rated FBS passer Russell fractured a bone in his neck in their last home game Oct. 24. But Stidham had played late in mostly lopsided games until starting at Kansas State, and he has still yet to throw an interception.
”He’s pretty outstanding,” Briles said. ”And his physical talents are not quite the separating points, as his mental awareness and instinctive awareness that he brings.”
And now he is the starter heading into this season-defining stretch – versus Oklahoma and then at fifth-ranked Oklahoma State and 13th-ranked TCU in consecutive games. There are plenty of national skeptics wondering if he can lead the Bears to another Big 12 title and into the playoffs after being snubbed last year.
”It definitely puts a chip on my shoulder. I came to Baylor to play as soon as possible. This circumstance happened, here I am starting and everything, and I definitely want to play with that chip on my shoulder,” Stidham said. ”As I was telling the guys last week, it doesn’t matter, we’re going to keep firing on all cylinders.”
Coleman leads the nation with 20 receiving touchdowns and 147.3 yards per game. He caught 15 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown in last year’s game against the Sooners.
Running back Shock Linwood leads the Big 12 with 130.8 yards per game, balancing an attack that averages 356.8 yards passing and 308.9 yards rushing.
Oklahoma’s defense leads the Big 12 in most categories, including rush defense, pass defense, total defense and scoring defense.
Oklahoma might be one of few teams capable of beating Baylor in a shootout. The Sooners rank third nationally in scoring offense and sixth in total offense. Quarterback Baker Mayfield ranks second nationally in passer efficiency and ranks in the top 10 in college football in completion percentage and passing touchdowns per game.
The running game, once considered a liability because of an inexperienced offensive line, has pounded out 295.2 yards rushing per game in its last four contests.
”I have the utmost confidence in the offense,” Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine said. ”Seeing how we’ve been playing the last few weeks, I feel there’s nothing that’s going to be able to stop us from scoring besides us.”