Lincoln Riley under gun after Oklahoma misses title again | News Coverage from USA

Lincoln Riley under gun after Oklahoma misses title again

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — With successive College Football Playoff appearances, back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners and complete ownership of the Big 12 Conference, Oklahoma is the envy of nearly every program in college football. The Sooners, and few others, can speak realistically each August of winning their conference, finishing in the top four and reaching a national semifinal.

“We’ve had a really incredible run of success, even consistency,” said Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione.

Envied, yet still envious. Oklahoma is the poster child for the immense yardage separating college football’s untouchables — a two-team group, Alabama and Clemson — from the handful of teams on the Bowl Subdivision’s still-elite next tier. For the second year in a row, Oklahoma set records, made headlines and played its way into the playoff only to come up short against a more balanced opponent.

Saturday’s loss to Alabama in the Orange Bowl, just like last season’s defeat to Georgia in the Rose Bowl, reveals a truth about this program: Oklahoma is good enough to win just about every game it plays but those that truly matter.

“I think it’s frustrating and annoying, honestly. We keep getting there and getting there and not finishing,” said Oklahoma linebacker Caleb Kelly. “Being here is uncomfortable. Because you’re pissed off and you worked so hard and you get so close again … it’s like, damn, I tried so hard. It’s just an uncomfortable feeling.”

In a vacuum, Oklahoma seems nearly destined for a national championship. The Sooners have performed according to the normal script, which follows that eventual champions must first taste bitter disappointment — gauging themselves against the best, tinkering with what works and eventually hitting on a solution — before finding redemption.

But this is a new era of college football, co-run by two programs in a way unique in the sport’s history. Oklahoma may join Georgia and Ohio State among the teams knocking at the national championship door, but the gap is wide enough to wonder what the Sooners can do, if anything, to make up ground while the Tigers and Crimson Tide continue to lap the field.

With three College Football Playoff trips in four years, the Sooners have the third-most appearances during the system’s five years. It’s been a major rebound after an 8-5 season in 2014 brought Riley to Norman initially as an offensive coordinator. But there’s been no national title. And that’s the expectation for a program that has won seven, but none since 2000.

Riley has also set an insane standard for himself in his first two seasons that puts Oklahoma in a tenuous spot. Missing the playoff in 2019 will be seen as a major step back. Losing in the playoff will be seen as a plateau. Only a national title will be satisfying. That’s easier said than done.

And with a crucial offseason ahead, it’s worth asking: What can Oklahoma do in order to close this space in the next eight months — and is doing so even possible?

This will be a period of transition for a program recently accustomed to drastic shifts, whether in Bob Stoops’ surprising retirement, Lincoln Riley’s promotion, the loss of Baker Mayfield and this season’s midway change at defensive coordinator. In personnel and in coaching, Oklahoma is headed for another round of changes.

“There’s always a period of transition from one year to the next,” said Castiglione, which while true doesn’t completely reveal the dynamic at play: Oklahoma will likely undergo a larger shakeup this offseason than any other member of the playoff, let alone the small handful of teams annually in the championship conversation.

The first may involve Riley, who despite his youth and relative inexperience has emerged as a trendy name for NFL openings. One spot, with the Cleveland Browns, would reunite Riley and Mayfield. It’s not a strange position for Oklahoma, which dealt with similar innuendo for much of Stoops’ tenure. Like his predecessor, Riley is unlikely to leave.

It’s still fair to ask what he’s learned from these two season-ending losses, each of which saw Oklahoma outplay its opponent for a not-unsubstantial period of time yet fail to capitalize. A year ago, it was a second-half flop against Georgia. Oklahoma fell behind 28-0 on Saturday night, an unrecoverable deficit even if, as quarterback Kyler Murray said, “most teams in the whole damn country would have gave up against a team like that, but we continued to fight.”

The losses in the past two years revealed the program’s greatest weakness: the play of a defense that flopped throughout the regular season and in the postseason, too, negating the presence of an offense that has easily ranked among the most productive in Bowl Subdivision history. Clearly, Oklahoma’s easiest path toward not just reaching a semifinal but advancing to the championship game demands an overhaul on the defensive side.

That makes Riley’s upcoming hire at defensive coordinator the biggest decision of his tenure, joining the move this season to jettison Mike Stoops — even if that move didn’t have any noticeable impact on the Sooners’ defensive performance. 

“I’m definitely looking forward to meeting a new coordinator and seeing his vision for the defense and what he wants to do,” said defensive lineman Ronnie Perkins.

Meanwhile, Riley’s offense will replace a Heisman winner for the second year in a row. The offense improved, technically, in the transition from Mayfield to Murray, who won’t return for his senior season. Despite Riley’s track record and reputation with the position, it’s difficult to imagine how the offense maintains this production in the move to a new starter, whether junior-to-be Austin Kendall or another option.

Clearly, Oklahoma would be in the market for Georgia transfer Justin Fields, who will also be the subject of overtures from Ohio State, should the Buckeyes lose Dwayne Haskins to the NFL. Regardless of the starter, the offense won’t change, coaches and players said. Given the last two seasons, it probably shouldn’t.

“Of course we have a vision of who or what we want to be, regardless of who’s back there,” offensive lineman Bobby Evans said.

Amid these changes is the normal sense of movement: Oklahoma will lose personnel across the board, notably along the offensive line. But so will others in the playoff chase. Others won’t have to replace a Heisman-winning quarterback, however, even if Oklahoma’s recent track record breeds confidence; other national powers won’t need to reinvent the wheel on defense, lending a second dimension to a team far too defined solely by its offense to win two games a row in late December and January.

So the painful lesson for Oklahoma is that the status quo isn’t good enough, a fact Alabama revealed on Saturday night. That makes the coming stage of transition mandatory. How close are the Sooners? This offseason may provide the answer.

“I think we feel a real sense of disappointment because of our belief in this team shocking a few people,” Castiglione said. “At the same time, it’s not discouragement. It’s actually more fuel for the fire, because we are looking at this in the sense of a beginning of the next step to where we want to be and not an ending to some sort of run.”

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