Lincoln Riley has taken the reins from a legend in Norman and flawlessly transitioned the program without missing a beat. He’s kept the Big 12 Championship streak alive, made two-straight College Football Playoff appearances, and has produced the past two Heisman Trophy winners and No. 1 overall NFL draft picks. You’d think there would be very little pressure on a 35-year-old head coach, whose name has also been discussed in the NFL rumor mill.
But, Lincoln Riley is at Oklahoma. He’s running one of the nation’s blue blood programs where you’re only as good as your last season. Last week The Franchise’s Sam Mayes told me in our weekly podcast, “If fans don’t think you had the kind of season where you accomplished what you should have accomplished, they’re going to burn you down… that’s the pressure of playing Power 5, blue blood football and that’s why he’s making $6 million a year. Yea, there’s a lot of pressure on Lincoln Riley.”
And yes, 2019 is going to be a great test for Riley in many ways. First off, the defense is overhauled with Alex Grinch coming in at coordinator from Ohio State. At Big 12 Media Days, Riley made it clear he doesn’t want to just be known as an offensive whiz kid, saying, “[Defense] matters a great deal. It’s a huge part of your football team. We haven’t played our best defensively consistently through the years but in a lot of big games including the last won in here we’ve played pretty darn good. We’ve got to do that more consistently to make ourselves a better team and we feel like we’ve taken the steps to do that.”
The hiring of Grinch, in many ways, is the biggest decision Riley has had to make entering Year 3 as the head coach. To get it done, he fired the brother of the man who handed him the reins to one of the best jobs in the sport, which only adds to the pressure Riley has to carry with this hire.
On top of that, while there’s a ton of talent at QB, and Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts is expected to get the nod, when you’ve produced two Heisman winners and No. 1 draft picks in a row, do people start expecting a three-peat? It’s important to note that Hurts has also had far less time in the program than Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray did before playing, but that doesn’t seem to concern Riley, who added, “It’s certainly been different. [Hurts] brings game experience that Baker and Kyler did not have when they got here, but also doesn’t have as much experience in the system. It has been quicker but it’s been fun.”
That’s coach speak for, “Sure, I may be a little concerned, but I’m not going to let you know it.”
And let’s not forget those big fellas up front who always seem to make everyone else look better. OU had four offensive linemen drafted in the top 4 rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft. Starting this season we will begin to get a look into the depth Lincoln Riley has built with some of his recent top 10 recruiting classes. Will they live up to the hype or be busts?
Meantime, when you look around the Big 12, there is likely to be more depth than at any time in the past five years. You can make a case for at least five, maybe six, teams heading to Arlington in December for the Big 12 Championship Game appearance. There are definitely legitimate cases to be made for, in addition to the Sooners, Baylor, Iowa State, Texas and TCU.
With the Sooners filtering through many new faces at key positions on both sides of the ball, along with an incredibly important new face on the coaching staff, and a conference that has the depth it hasn’t had in years, Lincoln Riley is in no way on a hot seat, don’t kid yourself, but internally, he must be feeling a little burn.
Alas, such is life as the head coach in Norman, Oklahoma.
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