It happens to the best of programs. Teams go through rebuilding years. There are 130 FBS teams and only about 10 of them have preseason expectations every year no matter what. They’re what you call blue-bloods, the ones with fanbases who don’t accept anything less than a 10 win season, every season, and expect a national championship every now and then. Those teams are: Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, USC, Texas, Michigan, Penn State, and depending on who you ask, Nebraska, Miami, and Florida State. These coaches are the ones who don’t get any sleep after a loss, are three straight losses away from being on a hot seat, and are expected to reload rather than recruit.
Oklahoma is one of those teams listed. For right now, they are arguably only behind Alabama as the greatest college football program of all time, with seven AP national championships (but 17 NCAA recognized) and six Heisman Trophy Winners, and four elite head coaches who all have made their mark on the program.
College Football experts may remember the first one, Bud Wilkinson, head coach during the 47 game winning streak in the 1950’s and 3 titles. Barry Switzer, the legendary coaching icon who’s had success at the college and NFL level; and more recently with Bob Stoops running a Big 12 title machine for 18 seasons with a 2000 national title. “Hey Caymen, that’s only three?” Well, let me tell you why I’m gonna go ahead and add Lincoln Riley to that list.
The Mayfield/Riley Impact – It’s not all Baker
Riley has been coaching the Sooners for three seasons, the first two as an offensive coordinator and most recently as the head coach. In those three seasons, Oklahoma has lost two total Big 12 games and has finished in the top 5 in the AP and Coaches Poll every season. In the 10 seasons prior, the only time Oklahoma had finished in the top 5 was 2008, with the most talented Oklahoma team to date. You may say,
“hey Caymen, that’s Baker Mayfield! Not Lincoln Riley!” which may be partially true. But do you think Lincoln Riley wouldn’t have done the same with Sam Bradford, Landry Jones, or Jason White under center? I’m willing to bet he would’ve.
After all, it’s no coincidence that when Riley was the offensive coordinator at ECU they averaged 31+ ppg 4/5 seasons he was there, and 0 in the past five seasons he hasn’t. It’s also no coincidence that Oklahoma that failed to average 40 a game in their previous six seasons before Riley and were 3/3 with him.
Part of this is Mayfield, but the coaching is what makes the difference. Do you think Mayfield had gone from 12 TD’s and 9 INT in 2013 to 36 TD and 8 INT in 2015 with no help? That’s a combination of hard work, talent improvement, and beautiful play calling from a 32-year-old genius wonderboy.
Blue Chip Ratio Is Finally There – Championship Capable For The First Time In a While
The play calling is a big reason for the Sooners success the last three seasons. But the most impressive impact Lincoln has had may be off the field. The Sooners recruiting has really been surging back to the top since his arrival in 2015. From 2011-2015, the Sooners did not have a single top 10 recruiting class. They’ve now had two in the last two seasons with another coming in 2019. That’s how you turn on the field impact to recruiting success ladies and gentlemen. I
They’re also now in the blue-chip ratio, where over 50% of players recruited on this team are four and five-star recruits. Why is this important? Because only one team since 1999 has won without being in the blue-chip ratio (Oklahoma 2000). At 54%, the Sooners are officially talented enough on paper to win a title. Which is why this season shouldn’t be a rebuilding year for Oklahoma despite losing Mayfield, but a chance to become the next top program.
The Other Candidates – Saban, Swinney, and Smart Are In The Way
Nick Saban is 66 and has won six national championships. The man is greedy when it comes to sharing a national championship, and while Alabama won’t necessarily go away when Saban does, the best days of Alabama football are behind them. I mean geez, how much better could it get? There is nowhere to go but down and if they prove me wrong and go on to win four of the next five then I’m switching to watching the Canadian Football League.
After Saban’s Evil Confederacy ends (AKA the SEC), the next program in line appears to be Clemson and Dabo Swinney. Swinney built Clemson to a perennial powerhouse, and can single-handedly turn Clemson into a blue blood with a couple more championships. After all, Clemson’s already doubled their titles since Swinney’s arrival, and no one really doubts they’ll get their third one sooner rather than later.
Then there’s Urban Meyer who was recently suspended, aside from the last couple months, Meyer and the Buckeyes would be a clear choice to replace Alabama as a top program, seeing as they’re neck and neck already. Meyer may step down in the next couple of seasons and try the NFL or retire though, and the Buckeyes may be in disarray if this season turns into a *horrible* 9-3 season. Meyer hasn’t won less than 11 games at Ohio State, and their issues come from off the field, not on the field.
Those are the only three programs that have had more success than Oklahoma in the CFB Playoff era, and Oklahoma just beat one of them on the road by 15 and the other two were considered “lucky” by many to not have to play them last season.
Right under Oklahoma, it feels like Jim Harbaugh and Michigan should be somewhere on this list but they’ve yet to put it together. This season though I think they will enter the conversation, as they finally have a capable signal caller under center.
Tom Herman still hasn’t done anything with Texas, but they’ll eventually break out and make the playoff in the next couple of seasons. Jimbo Fisher at A&M is already off to a weird start, but A&M has too much talent for Fisher to mess it up.
The only program that Oklahoma has had more success than (despite losing last season to them) that could surpass them is Georgia. Kirby Smart is taking a Nick Saban approach and recruiting dominantly and running through everyone on the ground. But with Jake Fromm under center the next 2-3 seasons, Georgia’s best chance is sooner rather than later. They may have been the best team in college football last season who simply got burned out from 2OT vs Oklahoma and 1OT vs Alabama. When Oklahoma and Georgia were playing last season late in the game and it felt like it was going into overtime, I said: “well now it doesn’t even matter who wins, they’re not beating Alabama after today.”
Have no fear Bulldogs and Sooners, the best is yet to come for both programs.
The Importance Of The 2018 Season
What this means for Oklahoma this season is a chance to prove it wasn’t all Baker and it wasn’t all Bob Stoops. This will be the first season Lincoln will have three full recruiting cycles under his name (and a transfer kid named Kyler Murray). The Sooners aren’t as star powered as previous seasons (No Baker, Dede Westbrook, Samaje Perine, or Joe Mixon) but the Sooners have talent at all 24 positions. Oklahoma’s defense should be much improved with their first five star defensive back in program history, Bookie Radley-Hiles. Along with junior LB Caleb Kelly, who’s in-game IQ is off the charts. If you’re watching an OU game and they’re on defense, just watch #19 the whole play and you’ll see what I mean.
Rodney Anderson, Kyler Murray, and Trey Sermon should make for Oklahoma to have one of the strongest running games in the country. Last season, Oklahoma ran it 56% of the time. This season, if I’m Lincoln Riley I aim for 60%. Oklahoma tried to stay away from design QB runs as much as possible and for good reason the last couple of seasons, Mayfield was such a good passer it didn’t make sense to have him run it. But Murray, who’s speed is top notch, makes QB designs more valuable than with Mayfield. Murray knows not to take big hits (he’s a $4 million dollar man after all) and most the time they’ll be just trying to catch him and not have enough time to try to rock him.
With running the football, it’s less pressure on your defense as well. It’s hard to stop a Big 12 defense for 90 plays. However, reducing that number to 70 makes a world of difference. You don’t have to win games 49-42 if you’re winning them 24-7. That’s what Oklahoma should strive towards this season with teams like West Virginia, FAU, and UCLA on the schedule. Don’t give Chip Kelly 90 plays to call. Especially when almost every team on the schedule aside from Army and Kansas State want to play up-tempo. Versus those two, go ahead and have Kyler pitch, err I mean pass the ball 40 times.
It also eases up the play calling duties for Lincoln. Beating teams running the ball is a lot less fancy than throwing it, but that makes it easier to call all those effective pass plays as well.
The 2018 season for Oklahoma may seem like Lincoln’s lone rebuilding season. But with 7 home games, a blue-chip ratio of over 50%, a former 5 star QB, and a lot of incoming talent at every position, the time is now for Oklahoma to ascend as the heir apparent to Alabama and Nick Saban. It’s been 18 seasons since Oklahoma has won it all, and 12 years since a Big 12 team won it all. There won’t be much more of a wait, and you can have Lincoln Riley to thank for that.