Let me preface: Georgia Tech fan. Yes we exist.
I was impressed with the effort from Oklahoma. There were so many plays where OU was just 1/2 step, no 1/4 step behind making a big stop or turnover on defense or breaking a big play on offense. That tenacity frustrated Alabama, which is why they committed so many mental errors and started so many scuffles. But the difference isn't coaching, toughness or effort. That is the difference between 4/5 star recruits and 3/4 star recruits. To make that up you either need equal talent or a different scheme to negate the talent. However, in contrast to the Alabama of 5-7 years ago, the Tide is now a lot more similar to OU, which means that beating them will require getting equivalent talent.
I disagree with the fans and announcers who were bashing Ruffin McNeill for not doing more to take away the slants. This goes back to the "talent" thing: what else are you going to do with 5'9"/5'10" 180 lb. defensive backs and the deficiencies in the front 7? Adjustments to take away the slants would have come at the expense of containing something else. Better to force Tua to complete slants than to allow Jacobs to rush for 200 yards for example.
I also disagree with the fans who wanted OU to go for it instead of taking field goals. At the risk of insulting you guys, OU runs a spread offense, which is most effective against good defenses (more on this later) between the 20s. Also, Alabama's weakness is their secondary, which Murray's running ability could exploit ... outside the 20s. But in the red zone there is less space to defend, making the secondary more effective and allowing the front 7 to be more aggressive. Thus the odds were against OU converting those 4th downs in the red zone.
Now the main issue: the reasons for the slow start. You all are familiar with the proverb: "Iron sharpens iron." The bad defenses and general lack of talent in the Big 12 left Oklahoma ill-prepared to deal with Alabama's size, speed and athleticism in their defensive front 7. It took both the players on the field and the coaching staff time to come up with ways to negate it. Had OU been accustomed to regularly seeing that sort of talent in conference play, the entire contest would have gone differently. Another thing: Riley and OU seemed to think that playing Alabama was akin to playing Georgia last year. That was a miscalcultation because Alabama has a lot more talent in their defensive front seven than Georgia does. Georgia was playing Mark Richt recruits and Saban's recruiting is simply at another level. So where Georgia only had 1 big time front 7 player - Roquan Smith - Alabama has at least 4 in Quinnen Williams, Dylan Moses, Anfernee Jennings, Mack Wilson etc. that will be first round draft picks. That is why OU wasn't able to provide the running room or pass protection against Alabama that they did against UGA last year.
By contrast, having to play Deshaun Watson in back to back national title games made Alabama a lot more prepared to face Kyler Murray than OU counted on. Being lit up by Watson to the tune of nearly 1000 passing/rushing yards and 8 TDs at 64% completions and only 1 turnover helped them hold Murray to 308 yards at 51% passing. Murray and Riley really did appear surprised - and frustrated - that Alabama wasn't fooled or beaten by anything OU was trying to do and in fact seemed to anticipate it in advance until OU regrouped, retooled and began to have success moving the ball and scoring. The reason was that Alabama had seen Watson - and Dak Prescott - do a lot of it already. Maybe the Heisman winner Murray is better than Watson and Prescott, but playing a combined 4 games against those two from 2014-2016 meant that Alabama was ready to face the Murray challenge in both gameplan and mindset.
So it isn't merely that Oklahoma needs better recruiting and a better defense, though that would certainly help. Oklahoma also needs the benefit of playing in a stronger conference. Before you protest that Clemson plays in a bad ACC, remember that the Tigers had to surpass FSU to get where they are. This may seem like ancient history, but from 2013-2014 FSU won 27 straight games including a national title. Add 2012 and they had a 39-3 run. Add in some other ACC teams who were at or near the top 10 in that era and the ACC that Dabo Swinney built his title contending program in was better than the Big 12 has been for some time, particularly on defense. (Case in point: the Big 12 champs losing 52-42 to UCF in the Fiesta Bowl then 42-41 to Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl in that era.)
So the best thing for OU would be for 2 or 3 conference foes to become programs that recruit well, play good defense and win 10-11 games a year ... and for one of those to be Texas. I know, Texas is your rival, you want them to lose every game. Trust me, Alabama feels the same way about Auburn. (Fun trivia: Georgia Tech and Auburn are friendly rivals in part because of mutual hatred of Alabama. In fact Alabama and Bear Bryant were prominent among the reasons that Georgia Tech left the SEC.) But Auburn beating Alabama with - you guessed it - spread QBs in 2010, 2013 and 2017 are part of the reason why Alabama's QBs have gone from Greg McElroy (who completed 6 passes for 58 yards in the 2009 title game against Texas) to Tua Tagovailoa, who lest we forget would still be backing up Jalen Hurts were it not for competition from Georgia. Were the Big 12 more competitive it would have forced improvements in OU's defense - coaching and talent - and recruiting long ago. So make the case that Texas Tech, Kansas, TCU, Oklahoma State (whom you also hate) or Baylor are going to be the program that starts reeling in the 4 and 5 star recruits that it will take to push OU to become and stay great and give OU the sort of competition that they need to prepare for the playoff during the regular season if you want. Maybe good things to the Big 12, college football and the universe could come from TCU, Texas Tech and Baylor becoming powerhouses while the Longhorns eat dirt. But until that actually happens, OU would really benefit from Texas being the team that is 12-1 or 11-2 that everyone says should have made the playoff instead of Ohio State or Notre Dame.
While it would have been great to see OU knock off Tech's former rival Alabama and current rival Clemson in the playoff this year, I will say better luck next year and the future. I have no illusions of my own program doing any better than the occasional top 10 finish so Oklahoma is as good as any to be the team to root for to slay the SEC - and Clemson - dragons. I can't root for Texas or Ohio State, as those teams remind me too much of Alabama, Florida, FSU and their ilk. So best of luck. But before I go I have to mention one last area.
As for the improved recruiting on defense that a lot of people on this site are trumpeting ... I want to challenge that. This OU class is still missing size and athleticism at DT and LB. Your sole DT in this class is 6'5" 305 lbs and that is good, but he is a 3 star - which generally means a 1 dimensional run-stuffing/space-eating 2 down player - which isn't. Same thing about the LB: 6'1" 205 lb. 3 star. And those 5 DEs aren't going to help that much, even if 3 of them are 4 star recruits, because none of the highly rated ones are over 240 lbs. Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Florida, Auburn etc. recruit OLBs that are that size and bigger, like Anfernee Jennings, a 6'3" 262 lbs outside linebacker.
I hate to be the negative nelly and feel free to flame me all you want, I deserve it, but from decades of looking up at the SEC programs as well as better ACC ones like FSU and Miami back in the day and Clemson now, the big and athletic linebackers and DTs are the difference between finishing #3 and #1. Clemson and Auburn won NCs in 2010 and 2016 with undersized and merely average LBs but I can't remember a champion that didn't have at least one big, athletic DT. The last Big 12 team to win a national title - Texas in 2005 - had 305 lb. consensus All-American UT Rodrique Wright, 350 lb. NT Frank Okam and as a backup Roy Miller, 320 lbs. and had an 8 year NFL career.
Lincoln Riley needs to realize that the entire "we just need a defense good enough to complement our offense that sets records against Big 12 teams that also have bad defenses" mentality won't cut it. Instead he needs a "we need a defense good enough to contend for a national title even if our offense is mediocre" mindset. A good guy to take a look at: Dabo Swinney is an offense guy just like Riley. He was a wide receiver in college, and his entire career has been a WR/TE/OC coach. He was hired to a Clemson staff that had been running various versions of the spread since 1999. But after closing out the 2011 season by losing 70-33 in the Orange Bowl in a year where Clemson gave up 30 or more points in half their games - losing 4 of them - he hired Brent Venables, who revamped the scheme and upgraded recruiting and you know the rest. That really is what it is going to take.