Oklahoma football: Would Lincoln Riley have done any better?

Coach Lincoln Riley talks with Caleb Williams (13) during the Sooners' 28-21 win against Iowa State on Nov. 20. They are now reunited at USC.cover
Coach Lincoln Riley talks with Caleb Williams (13) during the Sooners' 28-21 win against Iowa State on Nov. 20. They are now reunited at USC.cover /

As much as Oklahoma football fans loved the hire of Brent Venables as the next head coach, they despised the sudden departure of his predecessor, Lincoln Riley.

There was enough built-up anger at the situation that one of the state legislators moved to have the last few feet of one of the state roads leading out of Oklahoma named the Lincoln Riley Memorial Highway.

To say that Sooner sentiment toward the former Sooner head coach was anything short of outrage would be a gross understatement. You could sum up the general feeling in Sooner Nation as a combination of disbelief and disgust.

Riley’s announcement that he was leaving for USC, which came less than 24 hours after Oklahoma lost to Oklahoma State in the final game of the 2021 regular season day some 345 days ago, was the ignition source for a firestorm that swept through the Sooner football program in the days to follow, leaving Venables and his new staff to pick up the pieces.

Even before the Riley bombshell, the Sooners expected to lose several key personnel on both offense (Kennedy Brooks, Jeremiah Hall) and defense (Perion Winfrey, Isaiah Thomas and Brian Asamoah) to the NFL Draft. Those were just the first of the dominoes to fall.

QB Spencer Rattler was probably already headed to the portal regardless of what Riley did, but when he did officially declare, TE Austin Stogner decided to follow the former five-star OU quarterback to South Carolina.

Although Caleb Williams tried to be coy about his intentions, he eventually made it official that he was going to follow his former coach — who, let’s face it, Sooner fans, was the reason Williams came to Oklahoma in the first place — and his close friend, WR Mario Williams, who played well his freshman season at OU, elected to tag along. CB Latrell McCutchin also ended up at USC.

Former Sooner five-star and No. 1 wide-receiver recruit Jadon Haselwood also left town via the portal, ending up at Arkansas.

Many college football experts underestimated the severity of the talent hit Oklahoma took in the wake of the Riley exit. The Sooners still have plenty of talent, some of which was replenished through the same portal process, but it is clear that the net result of the two-way transfer process left the OU team worse off than they probably would have been under different circumstances.

Some are starting to question whether Venables was the right choice to lead this Oklahoma team. I said this earlier, and I stand behind it. I don’t think you can fairly judge a new head coach in his initial season. You’ve got to allow suitable time for a new coach to fully implement a new system and get the right personnel to operate within it.

The major knock on Venables comes from the expectation that the defense, which had been dreadful much of the time under Riley, would show immediate, marked improvement with Venables’ hand on it. My response to that is, what is it they say about a pig with lipstick?

Would the Sooners be sitting at 5-4 and 2-4 in the conference if Riley was still head coach? Hard to say. The offense would probably be better and more consistent. After all, that is Riley’s specific area of expertise, but the defense, sorry to say, actually might have been worse.

OU might not have lost to Kansas State and Baylor at home with Caleb Williams at quarterback and with the full complement of receivers the Sooners lost. I don’t, however, see that team beating TCU or Texas. And with Rattler gone and no real depth behind Williams at the quarterback position, had he not been available for two games — as was the situation with Dillon Gabriel this season against those two Big 12 front runners — the outcome might have been just as bad.

The bottom line is there’s no way to know how good or uncomfortably average the Sooners might have been if Riley were still the head coach. There are too many variables at play to say one way or the other, but one thing is clear. Riley had no long- or even short-term intentions to remain at Oklahoma. The NFL was already hot on his trail, and it is somewhat obvious that he was not comfortable with the idea of the Sooners moving to the even more competitive SEC.

It’s been like salt in the wound, however, seeing the success Riley is enjoying at USC this season. The Trojans are 9-1 and No. 9 in the College Football Playoff rankings heading into the final three games of the season. That’s certainly tough to stomach for Oklahoma fans, but it also doesn’t mean that the Sooners would have performed any better or be looking at a different won-lost record had a coaching change not taken place.

The Sooners did win 10 regular-season games a year ago, but half of those wins were by a one score. The writing was already on the wall. It very easily could have been 5-5 or 6-4 instead of 10-2 and a berth in the Alamo Bowl.

Oklahoma football has weathered adversity and down years before and come out of them just fine on the other end. The Sooners had three five-loss seasons (1999, 2009 and 2014) and a four-loss season (2005) under Bob Stoops. Bud Wilkinson even had a six-loss season (1960) at Oklahoma. No one was trying to run either of them out of town.

This is Oklahoma. Things will get better sooner rather than later, and Brent Venables will be the reason.