Jul. 13, 2017
Assessing Lincoln Riley's Chances In Oklahoma
It has been somewhat of a topsy-turvy off-season in Norman, Oklahoma this year.
After finishing the 2016 season on a strong note, which included a 10-game winning streak (the longest in the nation now), a Sugar Bowl victory, and then bringing back nearly the entire offense, that was one of the most potent in college football, the Sooners took two gut-punches. The first one was Baker Mayfield getting arrested and the second one was Bob Stoops retiring unexpectedly.
The good news for Sooner fans was Mayfield plead guilty and won't miss any gametime. While Mayfield gave Oklahoma a black eye with his actions, the loss of Stoops is the key blow to the stomach. There have been numerous rumors and such about why Stoops retired, whether it was from health issues (his father had passed at an age similar to Bob now), criticizing of handling the Joe Mixon controversy, etc. But all we know is that he is retired. And whether you liked him or not, Bob Stoops was a great coach. He got Oklahoma out of college football obscurity since Barry Switzer left in 1988 due to sanctions from the NCAA. He got a national championship in his 2nd year in Norman with a potent offense and a great defense. He won 11 or more games 8 of the 9 years from 2000-2008, which is amazing. He made 3 more national championship games and 9 conference championships in his run. We can say what we want, but is is definitely an impressive feat.
Which means, Lincoln Riley has some BIG shoes to fill. Riley has been a product of the Air Raid system and since joining Oklahoma as the offensive coordinator, he helped the Sooners net two conference titles and a playoff appearance. While my personal beliefs think the Air Raid is too much of a gimmicky offense with holes, it is a very effective offense in Oklahoma because they use the run game a great deal. And that is why in Oklahoma it is far more effective than at Texas Tech, Cal, and Washington State (save for the Cougars, it is why the other programs do not find themselves into many bowl games over the years). So on that end of the spectrum, it probably won't be fazed too much with Riley, Cale Gundy & Bill Bedenbaugh (co-offensive coordinators) running the helm in Oklahoma.
Obviously the defense will be under the spotlight. We know the Big 12 is a passing-oriented conference (8 of the 10 teams were in the top 50 in the nation with passing; only the Kansas schools were not in it). And that meant not one defense in the Big 12 last year ranked in the top 50 in passing defense. Riley spent little time of making a change, hiring his old boss/mentor from East Carolina Ruffin McNeill to work with the defense, notably the tackles while being an assistant head coach to Riley. And the defense of course, has been the maligned group over the last few years for the Sooners ever since Mike Stoops came back to Oklahoma from Arizona.
It is too early to tell so far with what Riley can do on the field as he wasn't the head coach for the spring game and such, but the hiring of McNeill does show a sign he is proactive and wants guys who know a thing or two on defense to run it. The thing is however, he has never been a head coach in his career yet, similar to what Kirby Smart at Georgia went through last year (and that was a mess).
Unlike Smart, however, Riley is inheriting the head coaching position at the same school he has worked at for the previous two years and kept the entirety of the coaching staff so I don't think the adjustment is as heavy. He also inherits players he has familiarized himself with for the past 3 years and knows their strengths and weaknesses which will also bodes well for all involved.
The biggest question aside from the defense will be can Riley handle the adversity if the Sooners are struggling in a game, say against Ohio State. Many view the Buckeyes the favorites in that game given the beatdown they put on Oklahoma in Norman last year and it is in Columbus this year. If it does happen, how will Riley handle it? How will he handle the fans who will question the decision to hire Riley? Or what happens if they take a stinging loss to Texas or Kansas State? Or he wins the regular season game and then lose the returning Big 12 Championship? Those still have to be the questions that are going to be answered.
It is going to be an interesting year in Norman for sure with Riley at the helm. He has a Heisman candidate in Mayfield and an offense that is second to none in the nation, thus giving hope for a playoff. But at the same time however, Oklahoma is on that same level as the likes Ohio State, Alabama, and Florida State where not winning that national championship is considered a failure or a disappointment, even at 10-2 or 11-1 (or 12-1 or 13-1 or whatever).
With all of this said, Riley has a GREAT chance of getting the Sooners to the playoff. I liked that he was proactive in bringing in McNeill and going to rely on his defensive coaches to get the job done. The schedule this year isn't overly forgiving with road games at Ohio State, Kansas State, and rival Oklahoma State, but if he can take 2 of those three, the Sooners should be in the playoff.
But it will be fun to see what happens.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat