In the college football recruiting game, there’s no guarantee that pedigree, charm and great facilities will aid you in landing that big recruit. That memo has not arrived on the desk of Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley. Entering his fourth season at the helm of the Sooners football program, the former offensive coordinator and QB coach has taken the Big 12 conference by storm. And he doesn’t appear to be letting off the gas anytime soon.
Recently, Riley and the Sooners reeled in yet another blue-chip recruit in 5-star quarterback Caleb Williams. Williams is the latest in a string of talented pivots to commit to the Sooners and will be the keystone of OU’s 2021 recruiting class. In 2019, Riley swayed then-top high school quarterback in the country, Spencer Rattler, to commit to Oklahoma. Reeling in the biggest fish of the 2020 recruiting class wasn’t enough for the head coach, because months later Riley convinced former Alabama QB Jalen Hurts to join the program as a grad transfer. So why do all the cream-of-the-crop of quarterbacking talent want to take an apprenticeship under a 36-year-old head coach?
It was Riley’s ability to see the entire field that set him on the path to sideline stardom. A walk-on at Texas Tech, the former Red Raider pivot managed to convince head coach Mike Leach of his football IQ. At 19, Riley hung up his cleats and joined Tech’s coaching staff to begin his apprenticeship into coaching. Serving as the Sooners’ offensive coordinator and QB coach in 2015 and 2016, the Texas Tech alum gradually worked his way up the coaching ladder. When Bob Stoops stepped down from head coach after putting together a 190-48 record in 18 seasons in Norman, there were many who wondered if Riley would need some time to adjust to making all the calls on the sideline. Since taking over the program, Riley has put together a 36-6 record (.857 win average) in three seasons — Stoops went 38-7 (.810 win average) in his first three seasons at OU. The Sooners have made the College Football Playoffs in four of six seasons since the postseason came into existence, due in large part to their captain on the sideline.
Triumphs on the recruiting trail relates to OU’s success behind center since taking the reins. Having groomed a pair of Heisman Trophy winners, Baker Mayfield (2017) and Kyler Murray (2018), it’s hard to ignore OU’s emergence as a QB factory. Since Riley took over in 2017, the Sooners have been mainstays in the top two total offenses in the nation: 1st in total offense with 579.6 ypg (2017), 1st 570.3 ypg (2018) and 3rd with 570.6 ypg (2019). A fun offense that scores a plethora of points and gets national notoriety is any young QB’s dream. The offensive prosperity has put OU in the unique position of having too many quality pivots to choose from. It’s an issue that a majority of college football programs would envy.
OU needs to show up in the big game if they aspire to be national champions. As noted earlier, the Sooners have made it to the CFP fairly consistently. They’ve also won the Big 12 title every season dating back to 2015. But when it comes to Bowl season, the Sooners often get humbled by one of college football’s other titans. With Baker Mayfield under the center, Oklahoma found themselves in a hard-fought battle against Georgia in the 2017 Rose Bowl. Riley’s team fell just short, losing 54-48. In 2018, it was another high-scoring affair with Kyler Murray squaring off against Alabama’s vaunted defense in the Orange Bowl. OU lost once again, 44-35. In the 2019 Peach Bowl, OU went toe-to-toe with another offensive juggernaut in LSU. As great as the Sooners were in the regular season, they were unable to contain and keep up with eventual national champion LSU. That 63-28 loss to the Tigers exposed Riley’s achilles heel: Winning the big game.
Despite the offense’s proficiency, Oklahoma’s defense still struggles to contain the firepower of their counterparts. While Lincoln Riley is praised for the offense’s output, he also takes the blame for the defense’s shortcomings. Despite improving from 2018’s abysmal 114th ranked defense to 38th in 2019, they didn’t make it into the national championship game. It’s the lone mark against what has been nothing more than an extraordinary rise for the young Texan bench boss.
Since being named head coach, Lincoln Riley has exceeded expectations. He’s groomed numerous quarterbacks into NFL prodigies, and has provided excitement each and every college Saturday in Norman. He has also managed to keep egos in check and avoided losses at the position via transfers. With a fridge stocked up on QB weapons for seasons to come, the Sooners are poised to continue their reign of dominance in the Big 12 and contenders for a CFP spot. So the question in the case of Oklahoma and Lincoln Riley isn’t if they’ll win the big one, but when.