ATLANTA — The right hand of Lee Morris’s father always seems to shimmer with a golden tribute to football greatness: a ring celebrating Oklahoma’s 1985 national championship.
“He wears that everywhere, and obviously for good reasons,” said Morris, a wide receiver for Oklahoma whose father played the same position at the school more than three decades ago. “I would love to have one of my own so we can, you know, have a nice little photo together.”
But bowl game glory has lately been sparse around the campus in Norman, Okla. And when No. 1 Louisiana State and No. 4 Oklahoma meet in a College Football Playoff semifinal on Saturday, two of the sport’s proudest and most ambitious programs will be looking to shake the postseason doldrums that have stalked them for much of this decade.
Oklahoma has lost every Playoff game it reached and has not won a national title since 2000, a drought rivaling one that the Sooners endured for the entirety of the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. L.S.U. has not made it to a national championship showdown since the end of the 2011 season, when it suffered a shutout defeat at the hands of Alabama.
The winner of their Peach Bowl matchup will play Clemson or Ohio State, which meet for the Fiesta Bowl Saturday night, for the national championship on Jan. 13. So beyond sustaining a title quest, the Peach Bowl victor will quickly move away from the sting of their recent wintertime records.
By most measures, the 2010s were awfully good for Oklahoma and L.S.U., the teams that produced the last three Heisman Trophy winners. Oklahoma won 109 games and L.S.U. earned 101 victories while Michigan, the winningest program in college football history, managed just 85.
Fans crowded the stadiums in Norman and Baton Rouge, La., and neither team ever seemed to have much trouble restocking their rosters with sought-after recruits. The L.S.U. and Oklahoma brands are among the most lucrative and well-known on the college sports landscape, and the coaches are statewide celebrities.
Frustration lurks anyway.
Oklahoma’s three appearances in Playoff games ended with defeats, two of them by double-digit margins. Last year, the program faced a swirl of renewed commentary about its ability to draw close but not quite finish. L.S.U. did not reach another Bowl Championship Series title game after its debacle to end the 2011 season, and it failed to make the Playoff in the system’s first five years.
Fans murmured — or roared, in some cases — as columnists and critics posed sharp questions and players and coaching staffs changed. Now L.S.U. is favored on Saturday against an Oklahoma team with more than enough offensive firepower to test the Tigers.
The Big 12 champion Sooners have far more playoff experience, including a quarterback, Jalen Hurts, who transferred from Alabama, a postseason juggernaut, for this season. L.S.U., which earned the playoff’s top seed after it overwhelmed Georgia for the Southeastern Conference crown, will rely on Joe Burrow, the signal caller who won the Heisman Trophy with ease this month, and a defense that has shown itself to be stingier on a points-per-game basis than the Sooners’ improving unit. (Oklahoma allows fewer yards.)
Both teams, or at least some of their coaches, justifiably argue that history has only so much reach in college locker rooms, no matter how much outsiders pore over it.
“These kids were in sixth grade in 2011,” said Steve Ensminger, who coached tight ends for L.S.U. that season and became the program’s offensive coordinator last year.
Referring to the Tigers’ 2011 quarterback, he added, “When we talk about Jordan Jefferson and all, they don’t know who the hell that is.”
Not long after, Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley similarly dismissed a query about whether past was prologue.
“It’s not overcoming the history,” the coach said in a flat tone. “We’re trying to beat L.S.U. on Saturday. It’s a different team, different staff, different year.”
Indeed. But, unsurprisingly, the arcs of both programs suggest that coaches and players developed their blueprints for this year’s campaigns with eyes toward what had worked or failed in recent years.
Lloyd Cushenberry III, the Tigers’ center, said that while he was not ready to conclude that his team’s new spread offense was the reason it had finally reached a semifinal game, its dawn had transformed the program and its culture.
“He knew we had to change offensively to get where we needed to be, to showcase our talents on that side of the ball,” Cushenberry said of Ed Orgeron, the exuberant, gravel-voiced coach who took over at L.S.U. during the 2016 season. “It’s definitely something that needed to be done.”
Oklahoma, already renowned for its offense, revamped on the other side of the ball, fortifying its defense enough from last season to this one to reduce its number of points allowed by nearly a touchdown per game.
The crucial shifts are, perhaps, part of why the one-year-at-a-time messages of the coaches are having only so much resonance among the players who will take the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Players from both teams said they sensed a sliver of an opportunity for Oklahoma, where the postseason letdowns have been more recent and vivid, to turn past games into motivation and tweaked approaches.
“You learn from them,” said Morris, who, like his father, Lee Morris Jr., started as a walk-on. “You make sure you don’t make those mistakes and learn from them and take that experience and put it on the young guys to let them know what you have to do to prepare for this game and be ready for the moment.”
Morris, after all, would very much like a championship ring. After all of the years of playoff futility, this season is the redshirt senior’s last chance.