Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley ended the speculation quickly, announcing his program will be going home for Christmas to begin his Tuesday morning Zoom call in preparation for the Cotton Bowl.
The Sooners are taking on the Florida Gators next Wednesday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and Gators coach Dan Mullen announced Sunday afternoon he was giving the team time off until Dec. 26.
Riley was unsure of the exact schedule Sunday. He knew it Tuesday and knows this is absolutely the best course of action.
“We’ll work out for a couple of days, and then we’ll get the guys home for Christmas,” Riley said. “Made the decision to do that. I just tried to weigh everything at this point. But we just couldn’t get past the fact our guys hadn’t been home, most of them, since June or July, and quite a few even well before that.
“And so it was just very important to us for our guys to have an opportunity to be with their families over Christmas. So they’ll get a couple of days there, Christmas and Christmas Eve, and then we’ll get the guys back here and get a couple good days of prep in and head to Arlington.”
There are going to be COVID-19 and contact tracing concerns, no doubt about that. Outside of a major slip-up after the win vs. Oklahoma State, COVID-19 hasn’t hit the Sooners in a major way.
H-Back Jeremiah Hall even said the Big 12 championship win was the most players OU has had available all season.
The physical grind has been intense, but the mental grind is at another level. No arguments to be made in letting the players breathe, for the lack of a better term, for a couple of days.
“And I think, also, it stems from the fact that the most appropriate thing for our guys is to allow these guys to have Christmas,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “If you think about – again, we keep talking about this year, but to take that away from them after just winning the championship and say ‘Be in the dorm on Christmas Day’ is something certainly we weren’t willing to do, and it’s not fair to them.”
Final farewells to Mordecai, Pledger
The Zoom call also gave Riley a public setting to give his thoughts about the transfers of quarterback Tanner Mordecai and running back T.J. Pledger.
Circumstances for transfers vary from player to player, but Riley wanted to emphasize how much he appreciated those two sticking it out for three years and battling through the ups and downs and not looking for a way out the first time possible.
Mordecai announced Sunday he was hitting the transfer portal, and then Pledger followed with his own announcement Monday.
Riley compared it, in a way, to when Trevor Knight left before the 2016 season. Did everything possible to make it work, but sometimes a change of scenery is best.
“Felt similar about Tanner Mordecai and his decision, T.J. and his decision,” Riley said. “You appreciate those guys, they hung in here, they gave it a chance. It wasn’t like one thing didn’t go their way and they bailed out. Those guys overcame a lot and were key contributors to this team and this program.
“So those guys don’t leave with any bad blood. Totally the opposite. Total amount of respect. A huge amount of respect and appreciation for them. And understand their need to find a better opportunity and a thousand percent support.”
And different sort of farewell to Brown
Transferring is one thing to watch this week, but so, too, would be players opting out to focus on the NFL Draft.
Florida has already seen that with tight end Kyle Pitts, and OU had its first taste Monday night when cornerback Tre Brown announced he will bypass the game and get ready for the Senior Bowl and the NFL Draft.
“I think Tre is going to have a good opportunity. I think he’s made himself a better player, become much better with his technique,” Riley said. “I think that was a big part of him, was just consistency and technique. So I do think that’s improved. Like all our guys, when they get a chance to take that next step, we’re always excited for them. And Tre’s no different.”
There won’t be one last memorable moment at AT&T Stadium. Three games, three incredible plays to help OU win.
But defensive coordinator Alex Grinch looked at it another way.
“Tre’s made some big-time plays over the course of, obviously, his career here, certainly highlighted by the interception at the tail end of the game this past weekend,” Grinch said. “That kind of serves as kind of a walk-off home run for Tre, which is great for him and obviously great for us.”
Opt-out question will linger
It feels like the transfer portal will continue to be something to watch in preparation to the Cotton Bowl, but to the best of Riley’s knowledge, that could be it.
“I think our guys that have made the decision to transfer out of the program right now would be the ones that we won’t have, but I don’t have anything further after that right now,” Riley said.
One thing that could change scenarios will be if any players have a change of heart regarding anything after a couple of days at home.
Déjà vu all over again from 2016?
You started to get that feeling midway through the season, and it’s only expanded down the stretch run. OU doesn’t start 1-2 often, but when it did in 2016, the Sooners ran the table, won the Big 12 and defeated an SEC opponent in New Year’s Six bowl game.
The Sooners, of course, were 1-2 to start this season. Won their next six games to earn a spot in the conference championship and avenged the loss to Iowa State in the title game.
And yep, another battle with an SEC opponent in a New Year’s Six game.
“The team battling back, a lot of young guys getting better, a team that’s got a chance to – as you look past this game, the team has got a chance to return a pretty big core and has a chance to do some exciting things here in the future,” Riley said. “So now there’s a lot of the same emotions, a lot of the same – kind of same battles that we’ve had to fight in a way. So, yeah, I think there’s a lot of parallels.”
OU beat Auburn 35-19 in the Sugar Bowl to close out that 2016 run.
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