Tramel: Lincoln Riley takes pride in OU's historic Big 12 streak, but it's in jeopardy against Iowa State
Lincoln Riley arrived in Norman in January 2015. The Sooners were coming off an 8-5 season that included 5-4 in the Big 12. Three full games behind co-champions Baylor and Texas Christian.
OU football was 49 months removed from its most recent outright conference title.
“I remember thinking that it’s going to be a big climb to go get one of these right now,” Riley said.
TCU and Baylor were riding high. Kansas State was 20-7 in conference the previous three years. Oklahoma State had won the league in 2011 and dang near won it in 2013. The Sooners were doing well just to stay a step ahead of hated Texas, which also had slumped.
Fast forward to Saturday. Riley’s Sooners stroll into Arlington’s JerryWorld having ruled the Big 12 the way few programs ever have ruled a college football conference.
OU has won five straight Big 12 championships and can make it six with a victory over sixth-ranked Iowa State.
“Every year is a new year, but you definitely want to continue that success,” said Sooner receiver Drake Stoops, whose father hired Riley six years ago as offensive coordinator and turned over the program to Riley in June 2017.
“You don’t want to be the team that broke that streak. Obviously the end goal is to win a Big 12 Championship and be the best in your conference, and that’s what is expected. That’s the standard here. You come to a place like this for that reason.”
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How rare is such conference domination? This rare.
The only longer streak among major conferences in college football history was Bud Wilkinson’s unfathomable 12-year domination of the Big Six/Big Seven with OU from 1948-59.
Alabama won five straight outright Southeastern Conference titles from 1971-75. Texas won five straight outright Southwest Conference titles from 1969-73. And Clemson has won five straight outright Atlantic Coast Conference titles, starting, like OU, in 2015. The Tigers play Notre Dame on Saturday in Charlotte with another streak on the line.
“We were able to do it that first year with coach (Bob) Stoops leading the way, and we’ve been able to get on a pretty good run since then,” Riley said. “I do take pride in it. Certainly, it’s a huge accomplishment.
“I mean, there’s a reason why it hasn’t happened in major college football very often. It’s just so hard to do and do it that consistently.”
The first two titles in this streak were won without a championship game. The Big 12’s round-robin schedule made for a treacherous journey (and occasional co-champs; OU and Kansas State in 2012, Baylor and TCU in 2014). Now the round-robin has added a guaranteed rematch in the title game.
OU has won three increasingly-tight championship games — 41-17 over TCU (2017), 39-27 over Texas (2018) and 30-23 in overtime over Baylor (2019).
“Coaching here, you just love being in these games,” Riley said. “These games are awesome, man. There’s not a guarantee in any year that you’re going to get this game and the opportunity that comes along with it.
“So I love them. I really relish these kind of games. It certainly means a lot.”
More Sooner pride. Including the first incarnation of the Big 12 Championship Game (1996-2010), OU is 10-1 in conference title games. No other program has so much as a winning record in Big 12 title games — Texas’ 3-3 record is the next-best record.
In the SEC, only LSU’s 6-0 record in championship games rivals OU’s 10-1. Alabama is 8-4 in SEC title games; Florida is 7-5.
In the Big Ten, Ohio State is 4-1 in title games. In the ACC, Clemson is 6-1 in title games. In the Pac-12, Oregon is 3-0 and Stanford 3-1 in title games.
The Sooners have not run totally roughshod over the Big 12. They have six conference losses over the six seasons since Riley’s arrival.
But OU has put itself in position to win in December, then has done so.
“Just consistently putting yourself in those opportunities where you’ve got a chance to be good enough to be in that game,” Riley said. “And to win those games and have those opportunities for championships and playoff and national championships and all that.
“To me, you just always want to be in the picture, and we’ve been able to do it with different teams a lot of different ways.”
Now comes the chance at a sixth straight, which would be halfway to Bud Wilkinson and further than any other conference streak has ever gone.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.