Lincoln Riley spent most Tuesdays this season directing his attention away from the College Football Playoff ranking unveilings.
Riley finally watched Sunday, sitting in his expansive office overlooking Lindsey Street, joined by co-offensive coordinator Cale Gundy and Oklahoma athletic administrators Joe Castiglione, Kenny Mossman, Larry Naifeh and Greg Tipton.
The OU coach liked what he saw on the screen.
His Sooners were No. 2 in the final CFP rankings and will face No. 3 Georgia in the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl, college football’s oldest bowl game, staged beneath the San Gabriel Mountains in Pasadena, California.
“That’s always been the one [the Rose Bowl], that kind of looking from afar, that I haven’t gotten a chance to be a part of yet that I was always hoping to get a chance to be in,” Riley said.
No. 1 Clemson will face No. 4 Alabama in the Jan. 1 Sugar Bowl, after Alabama re-joined the playoff’s top four at the midnight hour.
OU and Georgia’s first-ever meeting took shape Saturday after both rolled to big conference championship victories. OU cruised 41-17 past TCU, while the Bulldogs clobbered Auburn 28-7 in the SEC title game.
Their marquee matchup is long overdue. The tradition-rich programs have combined to produce nine national championships, seven Heisman Trophy winners and 60 conference titles.
The West Coast setting provides an opportunity for seven California-native Sooners to visit home, and for OU to make another critical recruiting footprint in the Golden State.
OU sophomore linebacker Caleb Kelly, who is from Fresno, said he was praying for an opportunity like this Saturday.
“I’ll be asking everybody for tickets, all my teammates. And then everybody will be asking me for tickets back home,” Kelly said. “I’d get to play in front of my whole family at the same time. I haven’t done that since high school. My girl would get to go.”
Riley said OU’s players will enjoy a light load this week to recoup from the regular season’s 13-week grind. Coaches will scatter for recruiting trips and award ceremonies, notably the Home Depot College Football Awards Show Thursday and Heisman Trophy ceremony Saturday, where quarterback Baker Mayfield is expected to claim the nation’s top award.
Game-planning for Georgia — which boasts one of the nation’s top rushing offenses — will begin in earnest next week. The Bulldogs gain 263.5 rushing yards per game behind three running backs with 600 or more yards: Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift.
“I don’t know if we’ve seen anybody with the caliber of the backs that they have there,” Riley said. “Ohio State had two pretty good backs and ended up having good years, but the two backs or really the three backs they have there are all tremendous.”
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart was Alabama’s defensive coordinator in 2014 when OU toppled the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl. He called that night in New Orleans a “miserable” experience.
Things won’t be much easier this time around, even though Smart is equipped with a defense that ranks fourth nationally overall and third in scoring (13.2 ppg). Mayfield orchestrates OU’s nation-leading offense, racking up 583.3 yards per game.
“We haven’t played against any Heisman Trophy winners, and nobody of that caliber at that position,” Smart said.
It’s a classic test of strength-on-strength, much like OU’s two games against TCU this season. Riley’s background is in offense, Smart’s in defense.
The two don’t know each other too well, Riley said, but have spoken on the phone and through texts. Ironically, members of Georgia’s offensive staff visited OU last spring to exchange ideas.
“So, hopefully I gave them some really, really terrible stuff,” Riley joked. “They were great guys. We spent one day over in the Bud [Wilkinson House, on OU’s campus] before we moved over here, just kind of talking, shooting some ideas back and forth.”
The next few months brought about major change as Riley became OU’s head coach, where he continues a dream season in his rookie year.
Neither he nor Smart, a former Georgia defensive back, has been in this position before while leading a program, but both have experienced the CFP as coordinators.
Add that to the growing list of storylines for their California meeting.
“It’s going to be a great setting,” Riley said. “Georgia’s a tremendous football team. Clearly, when you get to this point, everybody’s pretty good. They certainly are.”