Oklahoma is back, with a national championship in sight

STILLWATER, Okla. -- Donning a white Big 12 championship cap, Bob Stoops pointed his index finger to the sky while maneuvering his way back to the Oklahoma locker room, where the celebration and already begun. Just behind Stoops, Baker Mayfield slapped high fives with fans hanging over a banister.

Then the chants finally came cascading down: “We want Bama!”

The series of moments solidified what everyone had been gradually suspecting these last several weeks.

Oklahoma is back.

Maybe all the way, too.

This is no longer about taking back the Big 12 title, which the Sooners clinched Saturday night by blasting Oklahoma State in Boone Pickens Stadium, 58-23.

It’s no longer just about making the College Football Playoff; the Sooners are already in.

This is now about winning a national championship, and Oklahoma seems well-equipped to do just that. Because since the second Saturday of October, no squad in college football has been better.

“We felt we had a really good football team, regardless of what the outside perception was,” Stoops said. “No one knows they’re going to win it back in January or the start of September, but I knew we had a good football team.

“Better than what people thought.”

Those people, which includes yours truly, should be forgiven.

After all, the Sooners had been trending the wrong direction ever since falling to Florida in the 2008 national championship game. That decline culminated with last year’s 8-5 finish, which included a 40-6 loss in the Russell Athletic Bowl to Clemson.

“It’s been a long, hard journey,” said center Ty Darlington. “We've had to keep fighting and believing in each other.

“No one else was going to.”

The fight began with Stoops resorting to wholesale offseason changes that have since reinvigorated the program.

He fired offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, also the quarterback that delivered Oklahoma’s last national title in 2000, and brought in hotshot playcaller Lincoln Riley.

Stoops controversially stuck by his brother Mike Stoops, whom Sooner Nation zeroed its frustration upon after the Oklahoma defense collapsed down the stretch last year.

And he handed the reins of the offense over to a walk-on transfer quarterback in Mayfield, who showed up in Norman without even having checked with the Oklahoma coaches first.

But through that overhaul, Oklahoma has reclaimed its lofty perch among college football’s pantheon.

After no-showing through three quarters at Tennessee and the entire afternoon in the loss to Texas, Riley’s offense finally got rolling. And the following week at Kansas State, the Sooners unearthed an offensive identity, which centered on establishing dynamic running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon early, then let Mayfield’s otherworldly playmaking take over late.

Mike Stoops’ defense came around, as well, thanks to the emergence of young defensive backs Steven Parker and Jordan Thomas flanking the ferocious pass-rushing of Eric Striker and Charles Tapper.

“There's a lot of redemption going on from what happened last year,” Mike Stoops said. “Our guys used that to fuel their fire.”

But the biggest reason why the Sooners are the team nobody wants to face in the playoff is Mayfield, who is on the verge of securing a Heisman invite to New York.

Mayfield’s toughness and relentlessness has buoyed the Sooners all season. And once again, it was on full display in Bedlam.

On one telling play in the second quarter, Mayfield handed off to Mixon, who found no running to his left. Mixon turned back to his right and followed Mayfield, who buried Oklahoma State cornerback Ashton Lampkin in the ground, springing Mixon free for a 66-yard touchdown that ignited the Oklahoma rout.

“Baker can only play one way,” Bob Stoops said.

Since falling to Texas, the same goes for Stoops’ Sooners, who have miraculously gone from having their obit printed to being a playoff lock with still a week left in the season.

At this point, Oklahoma most likely will get Alabama in one of the playoff semifinals in a rematch of the 2013 Sugar Bowl. There, the Sooners famously toppled the Crimson Tide, providing a glimpse of what Oklahoma could be again. Two years later, the Sooners finally are making good on that promise they flashed in the Superdome.

“It doesn't matter who you put against us,” Darlington said. “When we play to our best, we can go up with anybody in the country.”

Saturday in Stillwater, Stoops’ “No. 1” finger signaled that the Super Sooners are back.

With a national championship now in their sights.