After experiencing a subpar — at least by Oklahoma standards — 8-5 record in 2014, the Sooners’ upperclassmen have seen success for their team: an appearance in the College Football Playoff following the 2015 season, then a win over Auburn in the Sugar Bowl the following season.
Now, the seniors are seeking to take the program even higher in 2017 — to a national championship.
“Last year was last year, but we’re just trying to make next year the best yet,” said cornerback Jordan Thomas, a three-year starter. “We have these guys heading into their last years, and they’re understanding that they might never get to play again.”
So that has contributed to an added layer of urgency, with so many seniors, such as edge rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and quarterback Baker Mayfield, about the depart. Then there are the non-seniors, such as left tackle Orlando Brown, who will be draft-eligible after this season. Brown, for one, could be a first-round pick if he leaves early and enters the 2018 NFL Draft.
A key to success in 2017 could be a quick start. Oklahoma lost to Ohio State and Houston in nonconference play last September and then stood at 1-2 before rattling off nine straight league wins. It became the first team to go undefeated in Big 12 conference play since the league moved to a round-robin schedule early this decade.
“We finished the season as good as anybody,” Thomas said. “We lost to some teams that we shouldn’t have lost to at all. We’ve been trying to implement starting fast.”
Of course, no senior on the roster is more notable than Mayfield, who started his career as a walk-on at Texas Tech before moving on to Oklahoma. He has led the Sooners to back-to-back Big 12 championships in his two seasons as a starter and finished in the top 5 of Heisman Trophy voting in each of those years.
After a lengthy career with little left to prove, Mayfield’s teammates say they believe the quarterback’s quest to win the College Football Playoff is what continues to motivate him.
“I think [Mayfield is] extremely driven and hungry to get further and win a national championship,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “I think that’s the biggest thing for him – wanting to win a national championship. It’s been big for him to be able to come around us and be able to lead us in that direction.”
Mayfield was not available for comment.
Of course, the 2017 season will be a tough road. Oklahoma has road games against Ohio State, Baylor and Kansas State, as well as at Oklahoma State, which appears to be the Sooners’ toughest competition for the league title.
It’s a brutal schedule. If Oklahoma captures a College Football Playoff spot, it will have earned it.