Sooner Crucible: Trial By Fire for Lincoln Riley

College football is one arena where head coaching changes draw both cheers and jeers unlike any other sport. After all, the head coach is the face of team, the brains of the operation, and the linchpin to success. Just ask new Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley.

To many of the Sooner faithful, the idea of Bob Stoops recently handing over the reins of a Big 12 powerhouse program to 33 year-old offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley is as frightening as handing a teenage driver the keys to a Formula One car and wishing him the best of luck. To others, it is a refreshing change of pace and a much-needed kick in pants for a program that just can’t seem to make it back to the championship podium since 2000.

Let’s take a look at what’s in store for Riley during his maiden voyage at the helm. Then we’ll try to identify some of the icebergs.

Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

Even the casual college football fan heard the collective gasps when Bob Stoops abruptly announced his retirement last week. Stoops is arguably the most successful coach in the history of Oklahoma football, and his record of total wins surpassed all his predecessors. The glimmer of light in the dark shadow that loomed over the future of the program was Stoops’ announcement that his successor would be Oklahoma offensive coordinator, Lincoln Riley.

Riley is officially the youngest NCAA Division 1 head coach and a relative newcomer to a Big 12 behemoth program at Oklahoma. Despite winning the Broyles Award last year for being the top assistant coach in the country, he has no experience as a head coach of a Division 1 football program.

Some say there’s no better way to learn how to do a job than being forced into doing it. However, in this case Riley is learning on one of the biggest public stages in America. He’s also following a living legend in Bob Stoops. No pressure, right?

Recruiting Woes

Oklahoma was experiencing a rough recruiting season even before Stoops announced his retirement. We’ve seen multiple commits flip to Texas, Ohio State, and other top tier programs after being heavily courted by Oklahoma. Whether this recent slump in attracting top talent is the result of institutional woes, public perception of a culture problem after the Joe Mixon fiasco, or just plain old bad luck is a mystery. Tom Herman has players clamoring for a shot at pushing Texas to the top of the heap as well. That certainly can’t help matters for the Sooners.

The fact remains that Stoops’ exit from the program is going to rattle some highly coveted recruits. It also might make them think twice about signing with an untested head coach. Riley is busy assuring top prospects that the current coaching staff is going to stay in place. News OK reports that many prospects are remaining committed to Oklahoma despite any uncertainty surrounding Riley.

If Riley can right the ship in a transitional season, 2018 should look much brighter. If not, look for some long Sooner faces in the annual Red River Shootout for the next few seasons.

Roster Development

Riley has at least one gold nugget in the pan before the 2017 season even begins. His name is Baker Mayfield. The starting phenom at the quarterback position for Oklahoma is returning for his senior season. This makes Riley’s job exponentially easier since he coached the Oklahoma offense to No. 4 in scoring and No. 7 in total yards during the 2015 season with Mayfield under center.

Riley couldn’t ask for a more talented, dedicated, and experienced player to lead his offense onto the field. Mayfield is publicly showing support for his new head coach. He’s also encouraging his team to rally around the new face of Sooner football for the foreseeable future.

The Sooner stables are always flush with QBs, so the challenge for Riley is developing these young athletes into the next generation of gunslingers who can carry the torch after Mayfield moves on.

The departure of wide receiver Dede Westbrook (who joined Mayfield on the 2016 stage of Heisman hopefuls) was a hit to the receiving corps, but Sooner fans can safely expect to see Riley develop an arsenal of other weapons to support the Air Raid offense made famous by his former mentor Mike Leach. Whether he’s able to do it during his first season is questionable, but not impossible.

Defensive Struggles

Some say the best offense is a good defense, and that might hold true in the SEC. However, the Big 12 is a different story. Oklahoma historically prides itself in being a tough team defensively, but in recent years the Big 12 has become known for it’s high scoring offenses and bullfighter defenses that allow more points than a basketball game. Oklahoma has a solid group of defenders returning in 2017. Cornerback Jordan Thomas, safety Steven Parker, and fan favorite linebacker Ogbonnia “Obo” Okoronkwo are all on deck.

Current defensive coordinator Mike Stoops is still leading the defensive squad for the 2017 season. He will need all the help he can get on September 9, 2017 when the Sooners face off against the Ohio State Buckeyes who handed Oklahoma an embarrassing 45-24 shellacking in Norman last year.

If the defense can withstand the onslaught from Urban Meyer, Riley has a chance to make a decent showing against the Buckeyes. However, playing in Ohio Stadium will make any chance of victory seem like conquering Mount Everest in a blizzard.

Can Riley Pull It All Together?

As the old adage goes: Heat, pressure, and time are all required to turn lump of coal into a diamond. “It’s science.”, as Ron Burgundy once said. Far be it for me to compare the Oklahoma Sooners to a lump of coal, but the first part of the analogy is what’s important here. Riley definitely feels the heat. The pressure couldn’t be greater. Unfortunately, time isn’t on his side for 2017.

If Riley can somehow rally the coaching staff, players, athletic department, fans, donors, and alumni, he has a shot a winning season and possibly even a bowl season worth talking about. This is an extremely tall order for an elite program whose expectations are both demanding and unforgiving. However, let’s not forget that a relatively unknown second year coach named Bob Stoops led the Sooners out of a horrible slump to an undefeated national championship in 2000, and that gave way to an Oklahoma legacy that will go down in history as one of the best.

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