NORMAN, Okla. -- Lincoln Riley is 36 years old, which means with his next win, the third-year Oklahoma coach will have matched his age in career victories. He is 35-5, one defeat of No. 7 Baylor away from his third consecutive Big 12 Conference championship. That is a testament to Riley's talent, not to mention athletic director Joe Castiglione's willingness to push in his chips on an untested offensive savant.
In a business when many guys burn out by their mid-50s -- Chris Petersen joined Urban Meyer and Riley's predecessor, Bob Stoops in the early retirement sector just this week -- Riley has the still-rare combination of youth and experience. That will come in handy this week as Riley and his staff prepare the No. 6 Sooners for their rematch with the Bears (noon ET, ABC/ESPN app).
As sequels go, the game Saturday morning at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, will have to be more "The Godfather Part II" than "The Hangover Part II" to match the Sooners' historic comeback over the Bears on Nov. 16. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Oklahoma became the first team to overcome a halftime deficit of at least 21 points over a team with a record of 9-0 (or better) since NCAA classification began in 1937.
The Sooners trailed at the half 31-10, actually an improvement over the 28-3 hole they initially dug, before coming back to win 34-31. There is a strain of thought in coaching that when a team plays that poorly, nothing can be gained from watching the video of it. Even Riley, in his young career, said he has had a couple of games like that.
But he didn't include this Baylor game, perhaps made palatable by the happy ending.
"Watching it as a staff, and watching it with the guys, there was so much to learn from it," Riley said this week. "Things under our control that we did very poorly, that we did better in the second half. ... There was a lot to learn from, and our team needed to learn a lot. There can still be a lot we can learn from it now."
Baylor converted turnovers on consecutive first-half possessions into touchdowns, the second one giving the Bears a 28-3 lead with 11:02 left in the second quarter. Of watching the video, linebacker and defensive captain Kenneth Murray said, "It wasn't a surprise."
Quarterback Jalen Hurts accounted for 305 of his 411 total yards in the second half. Hurts, in his coldly analytical fashion, said watching the first half of the Baylor game emphasized "the importance of execution. It's not really something I learned. It's something that I knew. It's something that we had a lack of. The story of the whole entire season has been how well can we go out there and do our job with the right focus and intensity."
There are, maddeningly enough, examples of both, beginning with the stunning 48-41 loss at Kansas State on Oct. 26. After a week off, presumably to collect itself emotionally and reboot, Oklahoma nearly blew a 21-point, fourth-quarter lead at home against Iowa State. The Sooners hung on to win 42-41 when the Cyclones failed to convert a 2-point attempt with 24 seconds to play. The week after the Baylor comeback, Hurts lost two turnovers in the red zone, and Oklahoma needed a defensive stop to beat TCU 28-24, despite outgaining the Horned Frogs 511-204.
"We understood when we don't do our jobs, things like that happen," said Murray, who led the Sooners that night with eight tackles, two behind the line. "It's kind of like that kid, growing up, your momma tells you not to touch that hot stove. You want to test it out. Our coaches have been telling us, 'Do your job. Do your job. Do your job.' We touched the hot stove against K-State and ended up taking an L. The first half against Baylor, we touched the hot stove again."
That means there's little chance Oklahoma will take Baylor for granted. Of course, with a victory necessary to remain in contention for the College Football Playoff, the Sooners should be paying attention, anyway. Hurts and Murray pretty much stiff-armed any discussion of the playoff, an early week sign of their focus.
Riley, having coached in the two previous iterations of this Big 12 championship game, minimized the effect of the regular-season matchup on what will occur Saturday.
"Everything is different about this game," Riley said. "It's not a road game for us. It's not a home game for them. Championship games are different. They feel different. Everything about them is different. ... It's going to be its own game, for sure."
Oklahoma's lack of focus through a four-game span has imperiled the Sooners' chance at a third consecutive playoff berth. A lot of tumblers must fall into place before Oklahoma can unlock a chance to win their first national championship since 2000. On the first weekend in December, the stove is always hot.