Tramel: No College Football Playoff, but OU-Florida in Cotton Bowl a good consolation prize for Sooners

Barry Tramel
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Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley stands on the sidelines during the 2019 Big 12 championship game against Baylor at AT&T Stadium.

In the Lincoln Riley era, any season in which the Sooners don’t make the College Football Playoff is a bummer. OU has made the national semifinals a literal school tradition.

The cynic would say that OU has made losing in the national semifinals a literal school tradition. That kind of thinking would generate excitement for the OU-Florida Cotton Bowl, a matchup announced Sunday after the playoff committee picked its four-team field, sans Sooners.

And there is reason to be excited about an OU-Florida showdown. Not enough reason to rationalize that the Cotton Bowl trumps a semifinal beatdown against top-ranked Alabama. You always would prefer to be in the playoff.

Always. A 63-28 Peach Bowl beatdown by LSU, a 45-33 Orange Bowl loss to Bama, a double-overtime heartbreaker to Georgia. Doesn’t matter. The worst playoff loss beats the best other-bowl victory.

But still, Florida in the Cotton Bowl is a fine consolation prize. From where this Sooner season was in mid-afternoon Oct. 10 — an 0-2 Big 12 record, a big blown lead against Texas, overtime looking imperiled — returning to JerryWorld as the conference champion, with a chance to beat the Gators, is excellent recovery.

“Absolutely an honor,” Riley said Sunday on a Cotton Bowl Zoom conference. “I grew up in the state of Texas. I know what the history of this bowl is. Certainly thrilled to be here.”

The Gators, in a different corner of the college football universe, aren’t as quite up on Cotton Bowl lore. Florida coach Dan Mullen said Sunday that his players’ first question about the Cotton Bowl matchup was where the game was played.

Kids today. What are you going to do with them? But Mullen said the Gators got all excited when learning that the Cotton Bowl is staged at JerryWorld.

“You’re going to line up in the Cotton Bowl playing Oklahoma,” Mullen said. “I go look out my window, see kids playing in the yard. That’s what they’re dreaming of doing. Doesn’t take a whole lot of motivation.

“These guys are competitors. In this game against that team, that’s all the motivation you need to go play.”

The Sooners will head back to Arlington without a chip on their shoulder. OU can have no gripes with the playoff committee.

Ohio State’s inclusion in the four-team field was misguided. Letting in a team that played just six games was a sign of the committee’s lack of direction. The Buckeyes didn’t play the back nine . Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame played 11 games each. Those are completely different obstacle courses.

But the Sooners have no beef. Two-loss teams don’t make the playoff, and when the time comes, two-loss teams that lost to Kansas State won’t be the trailblazer. If OU wanted a piece of Alabama, all the Sooners had to do was hang on to a 35-14 lead over short-handed K-State back in September.

Then came the explicable loss at Iowa State — the Cyclones are good! — and 2020 from then on was a consolation crusade. The only mystery was how far the consolation would fall below the Sooner standard.

Turns out, not far. OU won the Big 12 championship with that thrilling 27-21 revenge match against Iowa State and at least caught the committee’s attention. The No. 6 ranking by the committee was a sign of total respect for the Sooners.

And now Florida provides opportunity for OU to continue to rebuild its reputation.

The Sooners have lost three straight playoff games against Southeastern Conference foes. But OU whacked Auburn four years ago and Alabama seven years ago in non-playoff Sugar Bowls. Beat Florida, especially if the Sooners’ rejuvenated defense can slow the Kyle Trask offense that lit up Alabama on Saturday night, and OU’s reputation will be as robust as ever.

For a disappointing season, this is as good as it gets.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at 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.

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