Sports

Baker Mayfield Is the Shit-Stirrer the College Football Playoff Needs

Baker Mayfield brings a refreshing recklessness to Oklahoma-Clemson College Football Playoff semifinal game, echoing the brashness of Sooners legend Brian Bosworth.
December 30, 2015, 6:35pm
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I have little doubt that Baker Mayfield is at least slightly full of shit. I also have no problem with this. In fact, I would expect nothing less from a quarterback who plays with the sort of reckless abandon that makes you wonder not whether he is capable of exaggerating the slights against him, but just how exaggerated he makes them. This week, in advance of Oklahoma's College Football Playoff semifinal game against Clemson, Mayfield derided TCU coach Gary Patterson for revoking a scholarship offer at the last minute. Patterson responded in a very un-coach-like way: He tore into both Mayfield and his father for being entitled prima donnas. This is the sort of welcoming distraction that makes me happy Oklahoma and Mayfield slipped into the playoff in the first place, largely because every postseason worth its salt requires a roguish element to render it complete.

The story Mayfield tells about himself—the narrative that landed him on the cover of ESPN the Magazine this month—is straight out of the Tarantino playbook, full of righteous anger and budding revenge plots. Despite emerging from a powerhouse Texas high-school program, he was considered too small to get recruited by most major colleges. He nearly went to Florida Atlantic, but his father, a former quarterback at Houston, told him to hold out for something better. Eventually, Mayfield wound up at Texas Tech, where he played brilliantly before getting hurt, and then feuded with coach Kliff Kingbury over his position as the starter, his status as a walk-on, and so many other things that he bolted from Lubbock shortly after the 2013 season ended. (Mayfield's father, James, recently told ESPN's Liz Merrill, "I think Kliff's a punk.")

Read More: A History of "Clemsoning," or Why Oklahoma Is Favored in the College Football Playoff Semifinal

What did Mayfield do? He went straight to Oklahoma, enrolling in January 2014 despite not having met Sooners coach Bob Stoops, and despite the Sooners being yet another program that hadn't offered him a scholarship out of high school. He introduced himself to Stoops at the team's first meeting; by the end of the 2014 season, he'd earned a scholarship, and after Oklahoma struggled to an 8-5 record last year, it was Mayfield who stepped in to spark an offense that is now the most rampantly unpredictable attack in the playoff field. He led the Sooners to a comeback win over Tennessee; he helped them rebound from what could have been a debilitating loss to Texas. Now he is in Miami, preparing to play Clemson in the Orange Bowl, insulting other Big 12 coaches, and carrying on that grand Oklahoma tradition of rebellion. It is a tale full of hubris and self-assurance; perhaps Mayfield is exaggerating slightly the notion that no one ever wanted him, but that's almost beside the point.

Word. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If you want to get historical, you could say this sense of defiance is ingrained in the history of the very state Mayfield is playing for, all the way back to the mid-1800s. It is infused in the very nickname on the front of Mayfield's jersey, which is an homage to settlers who refused to play by the rules of the frontier (I have no idea if this is why Mayfield grew up in the middle of Texas rooting for Oklahoma, but I imagine even if he didn't know the details, it probably had something to do with his counterintuitive thinking). If you want to stay focused on football, you could still find a contrarian tradition dating back at least 30 years, to the run-up to the 1986 Orange Bowl, when another unapologetic talker of trash made a name for himself by charming a media horde seeking any kind of story that could cut through the tedium of pregame press conferences.

I don't know if its fair to draw a direct line from Baker Mayfield to Brian Bosworth, but there was an element of mythos to what Bosworth was perpetrating back then, as well. Bosworth has admitted as much, having since confessed to steroid use and disowned parts of the very autobiography that bears his name and likeness. It has become a classic college football myth; those Oklahoma teams, coached by Barry Switzer, were nasty and colorful, and this Oklahoma team could wind up in the same category, especially if the Sooners defeat Clemson and then face Alabama in the national championship game.

For the past couple years, Stoops has been consistently antagonistic of the Southeastern Conference's place in college football. I imagine that if the Sooners face Alabama, Stoops will use this as fuel—if not in public, then behind the scenes with his players. For all of Mayfield's tendencies to build up the slights against him, his coach is capable of the same standoffishness. After 17 years at Oklahoma, Stoops has grown into the kind of guy who doesn't seem to care much how people view him (on a more controversial level, this may also explain his harboring of troubled talent like Dorial Green-Beckham and Joe Mixon), which is probably why he can co-exist with a maverick like Mayfield.

"I don't really hold back. I'm very blunt. I'm honest," Mayfield told the media this week. "But [my teammates] could tell by the way I carried myself that it was real. It wasn't fake. It wasn't just some persona that I was trying to put on. They could tell it was real, and they enjoy that. You always want somebody that's going to be real and honest with you."

The people love honesty, and selfies. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I don't know how honest Mayfield is being about his own story; he is talented enough that he may have found his way to a pretty decent football school with or without the notion that he was somehow being slighted by the world. I imagine Patterson's side of the story might have some merit, too. But I have no problem with Oklahoma once again becoming a team that operates with a bit of rascality, because it felt like such a crucial element of their mythology long before Mayfield happened along.