The Argument For Oklahoma
by Mike Fink
In 2017, first-year head coach Lincoln Riley took the Oklahoma Sooners to the College Football Playoff with the help of fifth-year senior quarterback Baker Mayfield (the Heisman Trophy winner and future number one pick). The Sooners then lost in overtime to the Georgia Bulldogs. The next year, Lincoln Riley took the Sooners again to the College Football Playoff with the help of transfer quarterback Kyler Murray (the Heisman Trophy winner and future number one pick). They then lost to Alabama 45-34, a game that showed how far the gap was between the rosters of the Sooners and the4 Crimson Tide. Last year, Lincoln Riley again took the Sooners to the College Football Playoff, this time with the highly coveted transfer Jalen Hurts. The Sooners were then blown out by the LSU Tigers 63-28 and were trailing 49-14 at the half. Based on history, we know Oklahoma will be competitive and likely reach the playoff as they did the previous 3 seasons, but will likely also get blown out or lose to the team they face in the playoff. With this in mind, it seems like a reach to say that Oklahoma can win the National Championship, so what is the argument for this year? What makes this Sooners squad different than the previous three?
One of the interesting elements of college football is the monopoly that great programs possess over the average and even good programs. Schools like Clemson, Alabama, and Ohio State have become the monopoly schools in their conferences, not just winning in recruiting and on the field but owning recruiting and every other element that contributes to winning.
Oklahoma is trending towards owning the Big 12. You have to go back to 2014, that was the last year Oklahoma didn’t win the Big 12, they have either won the Big 12 outright or in the Big 12 Championship game every year since. Every year the Big 12 is Oklahoma’s conference to lose and they haven’t shown any signs of letting the dominance go. Last season looked to be the year that Oklahoma would finally lose the conference as Texas was riding the momentum from a big bowl win against Georgia (where of course, Sam Ehlinger said “we're baaaackk!!), Texas looked like they would finally win the Big 12. They didn’t. Baylor looked to be the ones in the middle of the season who would be able to steal the Big 12 from Oklahoma. They didn’t. After last year, it appears that Oklahoma is starting to own the conference the way the other top teams in college football own their conferences.
So we figured out that Oklahoma is likely to win their conference and therefore likely to make it to the College Football Playoff, but what makes this season different for their past three? The first reason we have to give for Oklahoma is their head coach Lincoln Riley. Riley has become one of the most respected offensive-minded coaches in the game and has shown time and time again that he can build an offense that suits his quarterback the most. Lincoln Riley’s offensive prowess has even linked him to numerous NFL head coaching jobs and is likely to be one of the top names following the upcoming season.
The knock on Riley hasn’t been his ability to dominate the conference, rather once they win the Big 12, they get overmatched by the other conference champions. While Riley deserves criticism for losing in big games, it’s important to note the other great coaches that also had to wait a few years before becoming National Champions at their respective schools. Nick Saban was hired by Alabama in 2007, he won his first National Title in 2009. Urban Meyer was hired by Ohio State Buckeyes in 2011 and won his National Title in 2014. Dabo Swinney was hired by Clemson in the middle of the 2008 season, it took him until 2016 to win a National Championship (granted it took longer as Swinney wasn’t starting with a powerhouse program at the time). The bottom line is it takes a few years for every coach to build their program to become a national contender and to recruit their players to be in the image of what they see as competing for a National Championship. One can argue that Lincoln Riley is ahead of schedule as he has made it to the playoff each of his first three seasons. The way Lincoln Riley has coached in Oklahoma, it’s only a matter of time before he brings a National Championship to Norman (assuming he isn’t poached by an NFL team beforehand).
Many critics have noted that Riley hasn’t been the one leading the Sooners, rather they had three incredible transfer quarterbacks. Each of the quarterbacks they had has been exceptional but nobody would argue that Riley has made them look better. This season can be the Sooners most likely for a great season since they aren’t playing with a transfer quarterback for the first time in the Lincoln Riley era. The Sooners will have to decide whether red-shirt Sophomore Tanner Mordechai or red-shirt Freshman Spencer Rattler will take the reins of the offense. Regardless, both quarterbacks that were recruited by Riley look to have a higher upside than any of the previous quarterbacks. While both don’t have the experience the transfer quarterbacks had, they should get better as the season progresses and thus make the Sooners offense even more dynamic if they reach the playoff.
The offense will be lacking two of it’s most talented receivers from the previous season. CeeDee Lamb went to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL draft and Jadon Haselwood suffered a broken leg this off-season that will sideline him for the upcoming season. With the loss of running back Trey Sermon who transferred to Ohio State on top of that, it looks like the Sooners offense is lacking more stars than any of the Lincoln Riley years. However, the focus of the offense for the first time will be on the offensive line. The offensive line returns all five of their starters from last season, headlined by Creed Humphery, a potential All-American, and a first-round pick. Games are won and lost in the trenches and the Sooners might have one of the best offensive lines in the country. The strong O-line should not only be the most beneficial factor for the young quarterback (whichever one the Sooners choose), it should also allow running back Kennedy Brooks to have a breakout season and give Oklahoma a balanced attack.
The offense is expected to be great as usual, what about the defense? The defense also lost a lot of star power, highlighted by linebacker Kenneth Murray who went in the first round of the NFL Draft. This year's defense has more balance and more depth than the other years. Alex Grinch was hired as the defensive coordinator to shed the negative reputation around the Sooners defense and looks poised to turn the defense into a National Championship one this season. The players that will need to have breakout seasons for Oklahoma are defensive end Ronnie Perkins, corner Tre Norwood (coming off a missed season due to injury) and safety Pat Fields, all three are good players but can turn themselves into first-round picks in the upcoming draft. The defense overall doesn’t have a weak spot, usually, it will be one unit that hurts them when they reach the playoff, this season they don’t seem to have one.
The Sooners season starts in the playoffs. The question is, will this be the year they can get over the hump and win a National Championship? If you are a fan of the Oklahoma Sooners, this has to be one of the more optimistic seasons as they have a legitimate chance to win a title for the first time since 2000.