Coming into the season, Oklahoma was seen as a top-three team in every preview magazine across the country and why wouldn’t they be? You had a star quarterback returning in Spencer Rattler, or so we thought. You had a budding defense that returned eight starters and just finished 28th in total defense in 2020. Key transfers like Eric Gray, Key Lawrence, and Mike Woods were supposed to fill in the gaps that the Sooners had and this team looked like a National Title contender. Fast forward to November 2021, and the preseason seems like a distant dream for Sooner Nation. Oklahoma now ranks 71st in total defense, Heisman-favorite Spencer Rattler was benched for a true freshman, and Oklahoma’s best win is a six-point victory over a 7-3 Kansas State team. Oh, and they were just manhandled for the first time since the 2019 Peach Bowl.
The loss against Baylor last week was as helpless as the Sooners have looked offensively since Lincoln Riley stepped on campus in 2015. So, what happened to the Sooners? Well, there are several factors, but let’s start with the facts. Oklahoma had several off-field issues to begin the season, one of which resulted in three key contributors being dismissed from the team. Injuries have plagued the secondary and Theo Wease, a potential All-Big 12 wideout, hasn’t seen the field yet this year.
Spencer Rattler has regressed beyond what anyone could’ve predicted and is now a backup. The defensive line, which was supposed to be on par with Georgia’s, has recorded just 5 sacks in the last four games.
If you dive a little deeper, you will find another glaring issue with the 2021 edition of OU. Oklahoma ranks 59th in rushing offense in 2021 with 171.8 yards per game, which is good for fifth in the Big 12. Last year, they were 49th in rushing offense, fifth in the Big 12, but did not have Rhamondre Stevenson available for half of the season and were an elite rushing offense when he returned. In 2019 they ranked 14th nationally, and 1st in the Big 12. In 2018, 11th nationally, first in the Big 12. 2017, they were 27th nationally, first in the Big 12.
Do you see the pattern yet?
The dominant offenses that Lincoln Riley has fielded during his time in Norman have been elite when running the ball. That has not been the case this year, and it falls squarely on the shoulders of the offensive line. They have allowed 23 sacks through 10 games this year, one shy of last year’s total (24) and two more than in all of 2019 (21). Bill Bedenbaugh is among the best offensive line coaches in America, so what is going on?
Maybe we need to look at the strength and conditioning coach, Bennie Wylie. The Sooners hired Wylie in 2018 after longtime S&C coach Jerry Schmidt left Oklahoma for Texas A&M. Schmidt is a legend among Sooner alumni and his methods were unorthodox, to say the least, but his teams were tough. No doubt about that. When I look at this installment of Oklahoma, they seem to lack a certain edge when they are on the field. Offensive linemen are getting pushed around at the line of scrimmage. Defenders are standing by while ball carriers push forward for extra yards.
Here’s video example.
There is no tenacity, no killer instinct on this team when you look at them from a bird’s eye view. Is that Wylie’s fault? Not exactly, but teams are built in the offseason and that’s when Wylie is running the show.
More Delegation From Riley?
Another thing to look at is how Riley delegates responsibilities among his coaching staff. A head coach who called his own plays hasn’t won a national title since Steve Spurrier did in with Florida in 1996. That’s not a coincidence. Now, if you don’t think that Nick Saban has a say in what offensive system his team runs, then you’ve lost your marbles. However, he has an offensive coordinator to whom he delegates offensive responsibilities. Riley needs to hire an offensive coordinator and offload some of the responsibilities that he is carrying on his own. If he wants to continue calling plays, fine. Hire a coordinator to work with quarterbacks, pass down that knowledge to him and trust in the staff to get the job done. If he can’t give up working with the quarterbacks, then allow the coordinator to call scripted plays and give him some freedom to grow into the position. Lincoln is one of the best offensive minds in all of football, and he is an uber-talented play-caller, but his team is suffering because of it.
A head coach needs to be able to help make adjustments on the sidelines, and not only at halftime. That’s like playing chess without your pawns; your opponent will always be one step ahead of you and when they are an equally-talented defensive mind (see Dave Aranda) they are able to keep you in a box. Riley is not an idiot, he is coveted by nearly every NFL front office for a reason, but a part of being the guy at a place like Oklahoma is being able to adapt. That’s how football has grown over the years. Specifically, that’s how offense has grown.
Over the last 100 years, offensive football has adapted so much that it’s hard to see similarities in today’s game when compared to the “three yards in a cloud of dust” that Knute Rockne was running in the 1920’s. That’s the beauty of it though, offenses adapt and defense adjust. In the last few years, we have entered into a defensive adjustment period. Look at what Georgia is doing to spread offenses this season. Look at how defense is being played in the Big 12. It wasn’t long ago that Jon Heacock and Iowa State was the only team running a 3-3-5 against Oklahoma and giving them fits. Now, everyone is doing it and the wheel goes round and round. It is time that Lincoln Riley makes some changes to his staff and his team, even if it means just re-delegating responsibilities. Riley was revolutionary when he got to Norman in 2015, and he will have to be that again if he intends to keep his team in the hunt for years to come.