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Tramel: Jerry Jones' palace has become Sooners' home away from home

Berry Tramel
Oklahoman
AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, home of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys and site of Wednesday's Cotton Bowl between Florida and Oklahoma.

Brigham Young linebacker Coleby Clawson barrelled into the OU backfield on a blitz, and soon enough Sam Bradford’s shoulder was a mangled mess. The Sooners’ season, too.

First impressions can be difficult to overcome. You couldn’t blame Sooners if they copped a bad attitude about the greatest football stadium in the world.

On Sept. 5, 2009, BYU added injury to insult, opening Jerry Jones’ palace in Arlington with a 14-13 upset of the Sooners that included knocking Bradford from the game and eventually ruining his post-Heisman Trophy season.

But Sooner Nation got over that sting. The magnificence, and convenience, of JerryWorld was too great to hold a grudge.

OU plays Florida in the Cotton Bowl Classic on Wednesday night. It will be the Sooners’ second game at JerryWorld in an 11-day span, OU having dispatched Iowa State 27-21 in the Big 12 Championship a week ago.

Thanks in part to the 2017 return of the Big 12 Championship Game, Arlington has become OU football’s home away from home.

“That's kind of like an ongoing thing that we kind of say,” said OU center Creed Humphrey. “We're there every year in that Big 12 championship, and we've won a lot of games there.”

The Cotton Bowl Classic will be OU’s eighth game at JerryWorld overall and fifth in the past four seasons. That’s the kind of frequency that Alabama has with Atlanta.

In the past four seasons, the Crimson Tide has played six games in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, be it neutral-site season openers or Southeastern Conference championship games or the 2017 national title game.

Bama also played in the late great Georgia Dome 11 times in nine years (2008-16). Atlanta became synonymous with Alabama football.

The Sooners can do the same thing with Arlington.

“I think it's a great thing, especially with it being affiliated so strongly with our conference championship game and the record that we've had over there in the years,” Lincoln Riley said.

“We obviously recruit that area very, very hard … so it's great for our recruits. It's great for our current players and their families, a central place they can get in and get out to.”

The Sooners beat Nebraska 23-20 in the 2010 Big 12 title game at JerryWorld, then the championship was discontinued for seven seasons. Upon its return, OU has won four straight at JerryWorld.

“Great for our fan base,” Riley said. “Hop in the car, it's an easy 2½-hour ride south to come watch us play and come support us.”

The Sooners haven’t even experienced one of the benefits of such a home-away-from-home — the Cotton Bowl’s playoff rotation. JerryWorld hosted national semifinals in 2015 and 2018; both years, OU was sent to the other semifinal, in the Orange Bowl.

In fact, many of OU’s playoff appearances in the 2000s have come with geographic disadvantage — Florida State in Miami (2000), LSU in New Orleans (2003), Florida in Miami (2008), Clemson in Miami (2015), LSU in Atlanta (2019). Nothing outrageous except that LSU Sugar Bowl, but every little bit helps.

The Sooners in the national semifinals, or even the national championship game, in Arlington would be a dream scenario. And with the caliber of Riley’s program and the stadium 190 miles to the south, the dream scenario is quite possible.

“It’s one of the top venues in sports,” Riley said. “It’s just a fabulous place to play football. We love going down there and playing.

“The good thing is normally, if you're playing in that, then some good things have happened through the year. So it's a great place to be able to play the big games.”

Of course, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is quite familiar to the Sooners, Arlington or not. This will be OU’s fourth game of 2020 in the DFW region. The Sooners beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl stadium in October and two weeks later beat Texas Christian in Fort Worth.

But TCU is a road game, and the State Fair in Dallas is a splendor shared with the hated Longhorns. In Arlington, the Sooners encounter a neutral site that can be commandeered.

“We enjoy it a lot with the Big 12 being down there every year,” said safety Tre Norwood. “The main thing is just the environment. As one of the best stadiums in the NFL, being able to play in it as a college team is something that you love to experience and love to have the opportunity for.”

Heck, familiarity with the stadium has its advantages. The giant video screen that hangs above the field, like something out of a Spielberg film, can be a major distraction, even for participants.

The Sooners have trained themselves to largely ignore it.

“Before we play there every time,” Humphrey said, “we kind of have a meeting … and make it a point not to stare up at that video board because it can be distracting with how massive it is.”

This is Florida's first appearance in the Cotton Bowl and second at AT&T Stadium. The Gators, with Jim McElwain as head coach, opened the 2017 season with a 33-17 loss to Michigan in the AdvoCare Classic. The loss snapped Florida’s string of 27 consecutive season-opening wins. The Gators were without 10 players who were all suspended for the game, including starting running back Jordan Scarlett and starting wide receiver Antonio Callaway. Redshirt freshman quarterback. Felipe Franks was making his first start.

This will be OU’s eighth game at JerryWorld since it opened in 2009. The Sooners are 5-2 in Arlington. Not exactly Alabama in Atlanta, where the Crimson Tide is 17-2 since 1995.

But the Sooners are working on it. They’ve turned the world’s greatest football stadium into their home away from home.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at btramel@oklahoman.com. 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.