Horning: Riley's strangely right about Mountaineers being a very important opponent

june frantz hunt/ norman transcript

Oklahoma Head coach Lincoln Riley and Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) in the game between OU and Texas at the Cotton Bowl on October 12, 2019 in Dallas, Texas.

Jalen Hurts’ over-serious act quickly got old quickly and, good for him, he’s shown signs of abandoning it in the victorious wake of his first Texas game.

Whatever he feared might happen should any pleasure be taken in the Sooners' success appears to have dissipated following a Cotton Bowl performance in which his teammates were there to plug the holes created by his own mistakes.

We can hope.

Watching a gifted athlete take no pleasure things going well is no fun.

He may have become human.


Yet, while Hurts may be stepping back from that persona, Sooner coach Lincoln Riley slipped into his own version of it this week and, on first listen, it came across one of two ways.

One, as coach-speak.

Two, as the public repeating of what he’s saying inside Sooner walls, trying to avert a letdown against West Virginia.

“[Saturday] will tell you a lot about who we are as a team,” he said. “We’ll probably learn more this week than any week that we’ve had up to this point.

“It’s either we just did it one game just because we were playing Texas or we’re really trying to make a difference here for the rest of the season.”

It’s little hard to take Riley entirely at face value because, truth is, OU also did it against Texas Tech, UCLA and, for the vast majority of the game, Houston, too.

Still, his bigger point is right.

It may sound like coach-speak, but that doesn’t make it coach-speak, and it may sound like some point he’s driving home with his players, but that may not be its basis.

A look at 21st century Sooner history is enough to understand the odd rightness of Riley’s conviction

For that matter, he can say it again in advance of Kansas State, Iowa State and anybody else, too, for the history angle is intriguing.

OU’s 6-0 for the first time since 2011 and happened to be 6-0 in 2010, too.

Each time, the Sooners lost their next game. In neither was it the week after Texas. In both, it was two weeks after. Still, it’s a lesson in not relaxing.

The 2010 season was Landry Jones' sophomore campaign, his best by far and losses to Missouri and Texas A&M both felt like outliers and yet they happened.

In 2011, Jones regressed and so did OU. Unranked Texas Tech bounced the third-ranked Sooners and it was downhill from there, the final insult a 44-10 Bedlam beating.

That’s one side of it.

Here’s the other.

Should OU prevail today, it will be 7-0 for the first time since 2004, a feat it happened to accomplish in 2003, as well.

In both seasons, two things were common. One, OU was dominant and seen to be dominant in a way it hasn’t been since.

It began ’03 ranked No. 1 and stayed there through the regular season. It began ’04 No. 2 and stayed there through the regular season.

We knew the Sooners were dominant not just because they appeared to be, but because the Big 12 was brutally tough those days.

Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Kansas State, Colorado and Missouri were all tough outs. The Longhorns were a humongous out, only losing to OU those seasons.

Run that gauntlet and you knew how good you were, the world knew how good you were, the question was not if you were for real, but if you could summon all your for-real-ness when mattered most.

In today’s Big 12, it’s not clear. Baylor’s 6-0 but is it even a top-20 team?

West Virginia, Kansas State, Kansas and maybe Tech appear just plain bad, nobody beyond Texas feels as dangerous as Tech, K-State and Missouri felt back in the day and because of it, it’s hard to know how good OU is now.

Beginning the last week of October 2000 through the 2004 season, exiting the top-five in the polls required the Sooners losing their third game of the season.

It’s not like Lincoln Riley’s internalizing all that history before deciding what to say about the Mountaineers, but he must know his team may not be tested again until the Big 12 title game and with a dearth of big games to build toward, must remain sharp now.

It’s crazy but true.

A three-loss West Virginia team that had to work to beat Kansas, was trounced by Iowa State, bludgeoned by Missouri and beat James Madison by a touchdown may tell Riley all kinds of things about his team.

“We need to continue to improve,” he said. “Despite, probably, what the outside world wants to say, there’s a million things that have to get fixed quickly.”


Or OU playing the way it played inside the Cotton Bowl will be plenty.

But the Sooners may play in a conference that doesn’t demand it and, given that, every week becomes a referendum on being the team you believe you can be.

In ways that matter now and later, it's actually a big game.

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