Lincoln Riley is in rarefied air among college football coaching elite

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 02: Head coach Lincoln Riley of the Oklahoma Sooners during Big 12 Championship game against the TCU Horned Frogs at AT
ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 02: Head coach Lincoln Riley of the Oklahoma Sooners during Big 12 Championship game against the TCU Horned Frogs at AT /

Bob Stoops was long considered one of best head coaches in college football. But it took him some time to work his way into the upper echelon. Lincoln Riley has made it there after just two seasons.

For the past couple of years, CBS Sports has published a ranking of the top 25 Power Five college football coaches. OU’s Riley comes in at No. 4 on this year’s list. Now in his fifth season as the Oklahoma head coach, Riley has moved up 11 spots from No. 15 on the same list just a year ago.

The prime reason for the eye-catching disparity — or should we say, the big ascendance — in just a year’s time is he is one year further removed from the Stoops legacy and the optimal situation Riley inherited from his predecessor.

There is no question Stoops turned over a gold mine to his young offensive coordinator of two seasons when OU’s winningest coach of all-time elected to retire, stepping down just a couple of months before the start of the 2018 college season. And Riley took full advantage of the rare opportunity afforded him.

Oklahoma Sooners Football
Oklahoma Sooners Football /

Oklahoma Sooners Football

The Sooners were coming off a 2016 season in which they won 11 of 13 games, including a perfect 9-0 record in the Big 12 and a Sugar Bowl victory over No. 14 Auburn. With Heisman Trophy finalist Baker Mayfield returning at quarterback for a third season and an offense that was second to none, Riley could not have stepped into a better situation in his first season as a college head coach.

Given the circumstances, it might not have been all that surprising that in Riley’s 2017 debut season, Oklahoma fashioned a 12-2 season, won the Big 12 championship and made the College Football Playoff as the No. 2 overall seed behind Clemson. The Sooners lost to No. 3 Georgia, however, in the national semifinals in a high-scoring, double-overtime thriller.

O.K., the 2017 Oklahoma football season would have been a dream season for any first-year head coach. But, as far as Riley and the Sooners were concerned, was it an anomaly or a signal of things to come?

Despite having to break in a new starting quarterback Kyler Murray) and plagued by one of college football’s worst defenses, OU’s second season under Riley was like a mirror copy of the first: a 12-2 overall record, another Big 12 championship, a second-straight College Playoff appearance and, oh yeah, another Heisman winning quarterback, the second in as many seasons.

CBS sportswriter Ben Kercehval goes a step further in his ranking of college football coaches. He ranks them in tiers based on their accomplishment of similar things.

For example, his highest ranking is what he calls the “Bear Bryant Tier: Blue-blood champs and Hall of Famers.” For 2019, he has Riley in this grouping along with recent fixtures Nick Saban, legendary head coach at Alabama, Dabo Sweeney of Clemson, Chris Peterson of Washington and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher

Riley, one of the brightest and most successful offensive minds in the college game today, is on a rocket trajectory as a college head coach. If there is any question that he isn’t deserving of a premium ranking among active head coaches, consider these two-year stats: Two College Football Playoff appearances, two top-four national rankings, a 24-4 overall record, two Big 12 championships, two Heisman Trophy winners and two No, 1 overall NFL Draft picks.

Next. Ranking the Sooners' future non-conference opponents. dark

You be the judge:  Is Riley’s rise to fame an aberration or actuality?