Big 12 title on line for Oklahoma, Oklahoma State
The Big 12 Conference, which announced in the summer that it would be bringing back its championship game in 2017, revealed last week that it will play the game at AT&T Stadium -- better known as the home of the Dallas Cowboys -- in Arlington, Texas.
Fortunately for the folks who live in Oklahoma, they won't have to drive as far for the 2016 title game.
That's because this year's Bedlam rivalry game between seventh-ranked Oklahoma (9-2, 8-0 Big 12) and Oklahoma State (9-2, 7-1) on Saturday afternoon (12:30 p.m. ET, FOX) in Norman, Okla., will decide the crown.
It marks the second straight year that the Bedlam game will determine the Big 12 champion. The Sooners won 58-23 in last year's regular-season finale in Stillwater.
The chance to perhaps celebrate on their home field this time around is added motivation for the Sooners.
"It means a lot more," offensive tackle Orlando Brown. "I think it means a lot more to this team. I think it means more to coach (Bob) Stoops. We've never had an opportunity to play here for a Big 12 championship. Oklahoma State is a great team. We're gonna have to do what we have to do to prepare ourselves to get that Big 12 Championship."
"I'm excited to see how loud the stadium's going to get," Sooners linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo added.
Oklahoma started the season with aspirations of making it back to the College Football Playoff, but losses to Houston and Ohio State in non-conference play make that doubtful.
The Sooners climbed back into the hunt after winning their first eight conference games but last week's results, especially with Washington making the Pac-12 title game and Ohio State beating Michigan but failing to make the Big Ten title game, diminished Oklahoma's chances.
Stoops, attempting to win his 10th Big 12 title in 17 seasons as head coach of the Sooners, said it hasn't been hard for his team to maintain its focus after their early struggles and also not to treat the conference title as a consolation prize.
"The Big 12 Championship, to me, is always your primary goal to start with because it's not easy to do, and I mean any conference champion," Stoops said. "It was that way when I was at Florida. That was where it all began. Same with K-State. To win that game was really special and never a consolation. It's what everybody is striving for first and then if you can be a national champion beyond it, sure, then that just adds to it."
"It's an in-state rivalry," Okoronkwo said. "It's for who's the best team in the state so that's always important. I have a lot of high school teammates on the team so it means a lot to me for sure. I feel like this is just as big a rivalry as going to Dallas in the Cotton Bowl if you're playing Texas. It's big."
Oklahoma State will be bidding for its first conference title since claiming the Big 12 crown for the first time in 2011. Although the Cowboys are double-digit underdogs, an efficient passing game led by quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington, a resurgent run game featuring Justice Hill and Chris Carson, and an opportunistic defense captained by safety Jordan Sterns provides some pop.
In all likelihood, the ability of the Oklahoma State defense to step up will be key.
Oklahoma has the most dangerous trio of playmakers in the Big 12 in quarterback Baker Mayfield, wide receiver Dede Westbrook and running back Joe Mixon. Together, they have been capable of producing attacks that simply outscore opponents since the Oklahoma defense has been susceptible in all areas.
Westbrook has more receiving touchdowns in the last eight games (15) than all but three FBS receivers have in their entire seasons while Mayfield remains on a historic track with a passing efficiency rating of 194.7. To this point, Mayfield's passing efficiency rating is greater than former Sooners star Sam Bradford, who holds the career NCAA mark. And Mixon has averaged 6.8 yards per carry during his two seasons for Oklahoma and ranks second in the country in all-purpose yards.
"They've got several skill players that are very, very good and are going to be playing in the NFL,'' Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. "We've got to be as balanced as possible and try to be unpredictable. They're going to make their plays. You're not going to come into a game against a team as talented as they are on offense and be able to completely shut them down. You try to manage the game.''
The road team has won each of the last three Bedlam games and the last two in Norman have gone to overtime. A Sooners victory would result in their first undefeated Big 12 season in 12 years and also give them their most conference wins in a season (nine).