The initial College Football Rankings were released on Tuesday night and the Oklahoma Sooners checked in at No. 18, the first two-loss team in the rankings.
While the Sooners are probably not in the running for one of the four playoff spots, it's not unreasonable to think how close Oklahoma is to being 7-0 instead of 5-2. Just a few plays here, a made field goal there or a key defensive stop could be the difference in a disappointing season and a possible championship one.
“We're one or two possessions away from being undefeated right now,” cornerback Zach Sanchez said. “It's the littlest things that affect the outcome. We could have been better on defense on a couple of drives.”
The players are well aware of the mistakes that led to a 37-33 loss to TCU and a 31-30 loss to Kansas State. The offensive line in particular has come up short in a couple of big moments.
“Two games now have come down to short yardage situations at the end,” offensive tackle Tyrus Thompson said. “We've got to punch it in during that last game. In the TCU game we've got to get that first down on that short yardage situation. There's certainly a lot of things to improve.”
Those two plays did not in and of themselves cost the Sooners the game, but they could have perhaps changed the outcome. Even if OU converted a fourth down against TCU or scored a touchdown to take the lead late against Kansas State, there is still no guarantee the Sooners win one or both of those games.
But when you're on the losing end, it's easy to look back on single plays and think about what could have been.
“Any time you lose a game, it's always one play,” Thompson said. “There's a bunch of one plays in those games. You go back and look at it. It's frustrating but you have to move on after that.”
The defense has arguably had a larger hand in the Sooners' two losses this year, as the dominant pass rush from early in the season has been stymied in the last three games, exposing a secondary still trying to put all the pieces together and figuring out what personnel gives it the best chance to be successful.
Despite those struggles, Sanchez didn't think the Sooners lack anything to become an elite defense. The first four games of the season suggest that's the case.
“It's just a few drives where we don't execute or have mental errors,” Sanchez said. “To say we're missing something, I don't think we're missing anything. Guys are flying around to the ball but things happen. We're going to have bad plays, that's just part of the game.”
The biggest thing for the Sooners the rest of the way is winning each play. Win each play and there's no reason to look back and regret a missed assignment in the second quarter that led to a pick-six. Winning each play leads to winning each game and winning each game…
“We're playing to finish the year 10-2 and get to the best bowl game we can and get back to being that dominant Oklahoma team,” Sanchez said. “We lose by four and one point, obviously people think we're one of the worst teams in the country, which is crazy to me but it happens. We're one or two possessions away from being 7-0, but this team hasn't given up on anything. We're going to fight to the end of the season and put ourselves in a better position.”
The Sooners were in this same position a year ago, floundering and left for nothing by everyone but themselves. Yet Oklahoma rallied and won the last three games of the regular season before beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The players remember very well how they got back on track a year ago.
“Our coaches said to just keep calm, the season's not over yet,” defensive end Chuka Ndulue said. “We don't know what's going to happen and we could still win the Big 12. We just have to get ready and not take anything for granted. We do this game because we love it and we still love it so we're just going to keep playing hard.”
Playing hard can win the last five games for Oklahoma, but it won't wipe away thoughts of what could have been. It can't make the Sooners forget those few plays that are the difference between contender and pretender.