Lincoln Riley did Sooners huge favor by jumping ship

Oklahoma coach Brent Venables walks with his team before a college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Arkansas State Red Wolves at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023.
Oklahoma coach Brent Venables walks with his team before a college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Arkansas State Red Wolves at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. / BRYAN TERRY/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY

Sooner fans will not soon forget the series of events that occurred on Nov. 28, 2021. Looking back on that day now, two and a half years later, who would have thought it would turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

The morning after Oklahoma had lost to Bedlam rival Oklahoma State in the final game of the regular season, preventing the Sooners from playing for what would have been a sixth straight conference championship, rumors were flying all over the internet that Lincoln Riley would become the new head coach at LSU. When asked about that by reporters immediately after the Oklahoma State game the night before, Riley strongly denied any rumors to that effect, stating that he would not be leaving OU to take the job at LSU.

That turned out to be a true statement, or at least a half truth. Riley wasn't leaving Oklahoma for LSU, but he did in fact leave OU and it was for another head-coaching job -- at the University of Southern California. And it wasn't just Riley that was leaving. On the morning of Nov. 28, Riley and several of his OU assistants boarded a private jet to fly to Los Angeles and meet with USC officials. And it wasn't too many days thereafter that Sooner starting quarterback Caleb Williams decided to follow his head coach to Southern California.

The wheels were already well in motion for the move by Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC in Riley's final OU season, and after his sudden and somewhat shocking departure it was widely rumored that one of his reasons for jumping ship was his concern that the Sooners -- and, by extension, he himself -- would not be as successful in the SEC.

All good things must...

Sooner fans revered Riley for the seven seasons he was at OU, first as offensive coordinator under Bob Stoops and subsequently elevated to head coach after Stoops announced his retirement. Riley was considered one of the brightest young offensive minds in college football when Stoops hired him. The Oklahoma offense averaged over 40 points a game every season Riley was at OU and finished in the top three in total offense in four of the seven seasons.

Of the five starting quarterbacks that Riley coached while at Oklahoma, three of them went on to win the Heisman Trophy (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Caleb Willams) and a fourth (Jalen Hurts) was a Heisman runner-up.

To say the Sooner fan base is passionate about its football team is an understatement. While Riley may have been an admired figure for what Oklahoma was able to achieve while he was there, the moment it became clear he was leaving and essentially turning his back on OU any good feelings about Riley and the job he had done instantly turned to sour grapes.

Throughout the 2000s, and certainly during Riley's time at Oklahoma, the Big 12 has been described as a league with excellent quarterback play and high-scoring, pass-oriented offenses but not a lot of attention paid to defense. That was a perfect environment for the Sooners to thrive in as long as they were able to outscore their opponent. That worked the vast majority of the time, but they also gave up a ton of points in doing so.

Riley was 55-10 as the Sooner head coach. He won three conference championships and two more as offensive coordinator and took Oklahoma to five consecutive bowl appearances. Four of those bowl appearances were against SEC teams, and the Sooners were victorious in just one of them -- a 55-20 win in the Cotton Bowl Classic over a Florida team that was seriously depleted by key players opting out of the bowl game.

The Sooners lost 55-48 to Georgia in arguably the best national semifinal game in the College Football Playoff era, 45-35 to Alabama in national semifinal game the following year and 63-28 to eventual national champion LSU in 2019. In those three losses allowed an average of 54 points and a 17-point scoring differential. But even more telling from those games was the clear indication that Oklahoma's style of play (great offense, no defense) was not good enough to beat the top teams in the SEC.

One national sportswriter famously commented that if Oklahoma's defense had been just average during the period from 2017 to 2019, when the Sooners made three straight College Football Playoff appearances, they might have won two or three national championships.

Beginning of a new era of Oklahoma football

Following Riley's departure, former head coach Bob Stoops, who hired Riley to replace Josh Heupel as offensive coordinator ahead of the 2015 season, rallied the troops by reminding the players and Sooner fans that Oklahoma football is bigger than any player or head coach and that the future would be all right.

OU athletic director wasted little time in filling the coaching void. He knew immediately who he wanted to bring in to lead the football program going forward and in preparation for the move to the SEC. And as they say, he got his man. Enter Brent Venables, who had earned the reputation as one of the best, if not the best, defensive coordinators in college football during a decade at Clemson. Plus, he was already a member of the OU football family, having spent 13 seasons as a defensive coach and coordinator on Stoops' staff.

Venables' first season as head coach was disappointing, largely because Riley had left the cupboard empty, especially on the defense, where the Sooners hadn't been very good for a number of years. Oklahoma went 6-7 in 2022 with a defense that ranked 122nd out of 131 NCAA Division I teams. And Venables had been brought in specifically to correct this major problem. There were some who began to question if Venable was the right hire as head coach.

With all the attention being placed on defensive improvement in the second season of the Venables coaching era, there was concern that there would be a drop off in offensive firepower. There was in fact a marked improvement defensively (from 122nd to 79th in total defense and from 99th to 48th in scoring defense), and offensively the Sooners improved from 13th in total offense in 2022 to No. 3 nationally last season.

The good news as Oklahoma gets set for its debut season in the SEC is that the Sooners should be even stronger defensively in 2024 with six starters returning in key positions and a freshman class with several elite defensive prospect.

There is no question that Oklahoma had to get better defensively if the Sooners were going to have any chance to contend in a conference well known for big, strong offensive and defensive lines and overall defensive excellence. If you need any proof of that, all you need to do is scan the NFL rosters and see how many players, and specifically defensive players, came out of the SEC.

Had Riley stayed in place at OU in 2022 and 2023, the Sooner offense conceivably could have been the best in the SEC, but we had a pretty good preview of what the defense would have looked like when Oklahoma was matched up against Alabama and LSU in the College Football Playoff when Alex Grinch was the defensive coordinator. Grinch undoubtedly would have been in the same role at OU the past two seasons, because Riley retained him at USC for two seasons before he was let go at the end of last season.

That would have been a recipe for disaster as far as Oklahoma's readiness for the SEC. Venables has represented everything Riley wasn't. It was time for Riley to go when he did, and, mark my words, the Sooners are much better off for it.