OU football: Jalen Hurts returns to familiar ground in Oklahoma's latest College Football Playoff bid

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts walks off the field at AT&T Stadium after the Sooners' win against Baylor in the Big 12 championship Saturday in Arlington, Texas.

Oklahoma could exhale Saturday night after the final chip that all but cemented its place in the College Football Playoff had fallen.

Being a national semifinalist is a reminder, for both OU and the Big 12, that they still stake a claim at the table of the elite.

OU’s fanbase might have let its mind drift from there. The Sooners lament the fact they have never won a College Football Playoff game. Not one of their players has experienced that kind of joy.

Well, except one.

The transfer portal has had its most profound effect yet on college football during this season. Former Georgia quarterback Justin Fields will lead perfect Ohio State (13-0) against Clemson (13-0) in one national semifinal. Former Ohio State quarterback Joe Burrow will lead LSU (13-0) against OU (12-1) in the other.

And trying to get OU its first playoff win will be former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, another transfer, who can provide a thorough and unique understanding of this backdrop.

It was another place and time, but Hurts played against and beat two different LSU programs teams as a member of the Crimson Tide.

OU has never played in the Peach Bowl, but Hurts has once, and this year’s Dec. 28 game against the Tigers will mark his fifth appearance at Mercedes Benz Stadium. He is 4-0 there already.

“It certainly doesn't hurt,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said. “Having the experience, having been in it, the optics of it sometimes for a quarterback, I think that could be a positive thing.

“It's kind of like the “Hoosiers” scene, right? I mean, the field is going to be 100 yards long, and we're going to try to put it in the end zone as much as we can and try to hold them out as much as we can. Eventually, it's going to come down to that. I certainly don't think that's going to be a differentiating factor.”

But it’s interesting to say the least.

Hurts’ experiences inside Mercedes Benz Stadium have shaped OU history. His benching in 2017 was the first sign that his days as Alabama’s starter were coming to a close; his off-the-bench performance in the 2018 SEC championship game knocked Georgia out of the CFP discussion, pushed the Sooners into the semifinals and helped convince Heisman Trophy voters that OU’s Kyler Murray was the worthy winner.

The building has been an intersection for Hurts’ life. All told, his numbers are pretty good in Georgia too. He’s 5-0 all-time in The Peach State.

Hurts doesn’t care to make the next month all about his story.

“It’s about these guys,” he said at Saturday’s press conference after OU’s 30-23 overtime win over Baylor in the Big 12 championship.

OU’s chances against LSU will depend heavily on him, though. The Sooners have a slim margin for error when Hurts turns the ball over — as evidenced by a loss at Kansas State and two near misses against Baylor this season. He has seven in the past four games.

As a result OU has recently gone to a rushing-oriented offense, which still involves Hurts. LSU ranks 24th nationally against the run (119 yards per game) and will test that. Baylor ranks 51st nationally and held Hurts to a season-low 38 rushing yards last week.

How do the Bears and Tigers compare? One person has particularly good perspective, having seen the Big 12-SEC debate up close.

“There is a narrative out there that the SEC is a different animal, but the Big 12 is tough,” Hurts said Saturday. “Baylor, they're a really good team, very physical team, and I got a lot of respect for them.”

ESPN analysts spent part of Sunday afternoon discussing OU’s deficiencies, from its improved but still not dominant defense, to its turnover-prone offense that has seemingly downshifted since a year ago with Hurts now at the helm.

For all the perceived warts, the Sooners can take comfort in an experienced pilot. Hurts arguably is the most seasoned player in the playoff. Despite the optics of Riley’s offense slowing down — its explosive numbers this season came in the first seven games and have tapered down the stretch — OU is No. 2 nationally in total offense with 554.2. LSU is No. 1 at 554.4.

The Peach Bowl provides theatre if nothing else. Hurts spoke with defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, another first-year figure at OU, while celebrating their Big 12 championship Saturday.

“I told coach Grinch just how crazy it is. If [he would have told me] as a true freshman, starting for coach (Nick) Saban, winning an SEC Championship, going to a national championship that I would be a Big 12 champion with the Oklahoma Sooners in three years, I would think he was crazy,” Hurts said. “But God works in mysterious ways, and I'm blessed to be here with these guys.”

Peach Bowl

CFP semifinal

Oklahoma vs. LSU

When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 28

Place: Mercedes Benz Stadium; Atlanta, Georgia

Records: CFP No. 1 LSU (13-0); CFP No. 4 OU (12-1)

Line: LSU (minus 11 1/2)

TV: ESPN

Radio: KRXO-FM 107.7

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