Bohls: Oklahoma, Lincoln Riley look more than comfortable at AT&T, their second home
ARLINGTON — His opening remarks said it all.
“It’s good to be back in our second home here,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley casually said in his introductory comments at the Big 12 media days on Wednesday.
The truth is hard to deny.
The Sooners own the Big 12.
Oklahoma's fifth-year head football coach declined to go ahead and say that, but he surely thought it. He did acknowledge that his team — and Bob Stoops’ clubs before him — has had a reasonable amount of success.
In his tenure at Norman, Riley has won 45 games and lost eight. Yeah, eight.
He’s won 22 of 24 home games.
Against Top 25 competition? He’s 13-3.
Oh, and the Big 12? The Sooners have won it all four of his first four seasons and six in a row since TCU and Baylor were co-champs in 2014.
And this might actually be his best team.
"That’s a little bit of a stretch because we haven’t played a game yet,” OU defensive end Nik Bonitto said. “But we definitely have that potential for sure, so I can see why those comparisons have been made.”
A different opinion here offers that it isn’t. Not yet, anyway. This writer would take any of the teams quarterbacked by Heisman Trophy winners Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. We remain unconvinced that Spencer Rattler is on that level yet.
He could get there, but he threw a pick and lost a fumble and was benched in favor of Tanner Mordecai for three series in the second quarter against Texas and is still growing into the position.
Now this OU may be the most complete team since its last national championship in 2000 because 15 starters return from a 9-2 team that hammered a depleted Florida team in last year’s Cotton Bowl, and it may finally have a defense that can contribute and not be a liability. Sooners defenses have been trending in that direction from the moment coordinator Alex Grinch stepped on campus and ranked 29th in the nation a year ago.
And that’s why many peg the Sooners as the next national champion.
They’re viewed through that lens for a number of reasons.
Among them are a solid, veteran quarterback who could evolve and become the first pick of the 2022 NFL draft, dynamic playmakers at running back and wide receiver, a strong offensive line despite the loss of two starters, a much stronger defensive front, a favorable schedule with Tulane, Western Carolina and a sliding Nebraska, and an outstanding coaching staff.
Rattler’s the premier quarterback in the nation.
If Marvin Mims isn’t the best receiver in college football, it might be Jadon Haselwood now that he’s fully recovered from his ACL tear. He was making one-handed catches in the spring. It may be the deepest team in wideouts and includes true freshman Mario Williams and Arkansas transfer Mike Woods although Riley surprisingly still thinks the jury is out on this group.
Austin Stogner’s one of the best tight ends around.
Kennedy Brooks, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2019, returns after opting out of 2020 and will fight for the rock with Tennessee newcomer Eric Gray.
The offensive line is always good and includes Wanya Morris, another former Volunteer.
The defensive line is littered with NFL prospects from rush end Bonitto to Isaiah Thomas, a pair that combined for 16.5 sacks last season.
Linebacker Brian Asamoah led the team in tackles, and Riley said OU may be “as deep as we’ve ever been there.”
A talented secondary boasts future star Woodi Washington at cornerback and 6-foot-1 Lawrence Key, another of the three key transfers from Tennessee who will have immediate impacts this fall.
No wonder Riley has swagger.
And so does his team.
Hardly a coincidence.
When I asked Riley if he wants his players to think they own the Big 12 after winning the league despite starting 0-2 in Big 12 play, he paused and said, “We could go a lot of ways with that one. I do think it shows the championship DNA of this program that I felt like our team was not going to accept mediocrity. We have a lot of respect for this league.”
The translation is that OU has a lot of respect for the rest of the league whose butts the Sooners beat every season. Consider that in the crimson’s six-year reign as champs include one 9-0 conference record, four 8-1 marks and last year’s 6-2 slate, which was punctuated with a seven-game winning streak counting the title game. During that span, OU’s average margin of victory was 23 points.
If anything, an upgrade of the defense should signal a golden opportunity for OU to break the stranglehold that the Alabamas and Clemsons have on college football.
“Alex quickly separated himself for us during that (interview) process, and our visions were so much aligned that it was almost scary,” Riley said. “The progression has been great. We took a big step in year two, and our plan is to take another big step here.
“I think because of our success as a team, and especially our success defensively over the last few years, we’ve been able to recruit at a higher and higher level. And we look different just even walking into a team meeting on that side of the ball.”
OU has also changed its recruiting philosophy defensively. Riley said his staff has put a premium on more mobile guys up front and bigger defensive backs.
And it might all come together as the Sooners look to make it seven straight conference titles.
As dominant as OU has been in the Big 12, Riley is still saddled with an 0-3 record in the playoffs, one streak he desperately wants to snap.
But first he’s got to get back here.
“I’m from North Carolina, so I’d never been to Dallas Cowboys Stadium,” OU tight end Jeremiah Hall said. “We’ve come here for the last four years, so it’s a pretty familiar environment. It’s my favorite sideline.”
It’s Riley’s too, because he feels so comfortable at this place.
He just exudes confidence and didn’t hold back during his 20-minute session with reporters. And when every other coach left the stage and conducted more casual, in-person conferences with the media, Riley turned east and conveniently headed out the back door to make his escape.
Of course, why wouldn’t he know the back door of his second home.