The 2014 Sooners seemed poised to dominate the Big 12. Consultations with Nick Saban had resulted in the design of a 3-4 defensive front that was loaded with power, speed and versatilty.
The offense moved quarterback Blake Bell to his more natural position at tight end and emphasized bigger sets that put him on the field with fullback Aaron Ripkowski, 243-pound freshman RB Samaje Perine and a veteran OL keyed by mauling right tackle Daryl Williams. Perine ran for 1,713 yards, and Oklahoma's defense finished 20th in rushing S&P.
But the embrace of conservative tactics didn't work out. The Sooners finished 8-5 along with a moral defeat when they scarcely beat Texas. The bowl shellacking by Clemson just confirmed big changes were coming.
Since then, Oklahoma has seen a flurry of staffing changes highlighted by Stoops firing both his OCs and bringing back the air raid, snatching East Carolina's Lincoln Riley.
Winning championships requires elite units, and not on just one side. A fantastic offense paired with a weak defense won't cut it. What made the 2000s Sooners regular participants in the BCS Championship was the way Stoops incorporated aggressive offensive strategies like the air raid or up-tempo.
The typical failing when embracing a wide-open offensive attack is playing your best athletes on offense and fostering a skills-based culture that doesn't create a tough program. However skilled your offense is, if the other team has comparable players but greater physicality, it is generally going to win a game built around violence.
Defensive coaches often err on the opposite extreme, emphasizing physicality to the detriment of speed, skill, or aggression on offense. They'll be content to run the ball a few times and punt.
One of the best combos is the defensive-minded coach who loves aggressive offense. You get the blend of a physical culture and a willingness to attack. You win games however you can, rather than based on a pre-determined formula.
The return of the air raid
When Stoops was hired at Oklahoma out of Florida, where he'd served as Steve Spurrier's DC and was the missing ingredient that resulted in their 1997 national championship, he looked to bring an OC who'd run the offense that gave him fits in the SEC: Kentucky's Mike Leach.
Although that union was short-lived (one year and Leach was off to Texas Tech), OU maintained the approach with Mark Mangino and laid waste to the league in 2000. Kevin Wilson took over and again made Oklahoma a forerunner with an up-tempo offense that magnified the Sooners' talent advantages, turning the game into a contest of depth and basic execution.
The question is whether Riley can bring Oklahoma back to the forefront after its struggles to develop a replacement for Landry Jones. QB was a major problem for Oklahoma in 2014, and the once-promising Trevor Knight came unglued and contributed to Oklahoma throwing 17 interceptions and finishing with 6.9 yards per passing attempt. Although Perine returns, along with a strong running back depth chart, Oklahoma's loss of its tight end, fullback and most of the OL makes a return to the passing game timely.
At East Carolina, Riley molded Texas QB Shane Carden, a two-star recruit, into a 4,000-yard passer in consecutive years. His variety of spread passing is similar to what Kliff Kingsbury is doing at Texas Tech. A few key concepts have WR options, to create a high degree of post-snap uncertainty for the defense. That allows quick-moving skill players and quarterbacks to develop chemistry.
At Oklahoma, Riley will find talent to plug into his system, which has the following needs.
Flex TE: At ECU, Riley liked to use flex tight ends like Bryce Williams, who could block on the edge, though you wouldn't ask them to drive and finish against a sturdy DL. Where this position was valuable was in presenting a big target in the red zone after the speedier wide receivers had chewed up yardage between the 20s.
Oklahoma has several options, including redshirt freshman Mark Andrews, a 6'6, 240-pound receiver whose highest ceiling was always on the inside.
The option route runners: This system is at its best with a stud in the slot and another at outside receiver. After these two, everyone else needs to be willing blockers and explosive on screens and underneath routes.
The Sooners bring back star Sterling Shepard and top targets Durron Neal and Michiah Quick, but JUCO Dede Westbrook may end up as the slot. Coming from Blinn Junior College, where he ran vertical option routes in a run-and-shoot scheme, he's too quick and reactive for most defenders.
The quick-thinking QB: A strong arm is great, but the abilities to throw accurately from different positions, keep the eyes downfield and process information are more important.
Oklahoma has big athletes who look like pro-style passers in Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen, but whether they can be molded into quick-trigger air raid QBs is another question. There's a good chance that walk-on Baker Mayfield, who was the QB at Tech in 2013 before transferring, could be the favorite.
Run game personnel? The Riley game is different from what Oklahoma relied on under OL coach Bill Bedenbaugh, who aspires to a mauling attack. Riley has generally followed the Leach creed of finding tall pass protectors and running the ball only when at advantage and often with plays that punish blitzes.
The darting, spread-back and constraint-based run game is not what Oklahoma's personnel is suited to. Oklahoma has some young talent on the OL, at fullback, and of course at running back. How well the Sooners marry the smashmouth approach to the spread will likely dictate whether the reintegration of the air raid has the desired effect.
Finding an identity
It's likely that Oklahoma looks like it did in the latter Landry Jones days, when it would use three receivers along with do-it-all fullback Trey Millard. The best skill player lineup for the Sooners in 2015 includes versatile sophomore fullback Dimitri Flowers (F).
The combo for Oklahoma would be to isolate Shepard on the outside (Z) with Westbrook as the slot (Y) and take advantage of space afforded by the defense's focus on the inside run. The other outside receiver could be veteran Neal or the explosive Quick, who's likely to be a terror in the screen game.
Screens are a big part of the air raid, as are route concepts that allow receivers to break inside and catch on the run, keeping with Leach's "throw it short to people who can score" mantra. Those ideas combine in a newer version of the tunnel screen, which doesn't require OL to get out in space.
The Y receiver steps back as though he were receiving on a bubble screen but then breaks inside to pick off a linebacker with an unexpected block. The X steps forward as though he were running a route or blocking for the bubble, but then runs back underneath to catch the ball, running into the "tunnel" created by the F and Y blocks. Riley is great at getting a receiver a clean release to run inside routes.
When Riley wants to throw downfield, OU will do it with the classic four verticals, now complete with option routes that can make it a nightmare.
The Sooners can run this as a true four-receiver set, or they can motion Flowers out to the slot and let him run against a linebacker. Outside receivers can often come back if they face soft coverage they can't run past. Meanwhile on the inside, the slot receivers run GO (get open) routes.
The quarterback picks a matchup he likes, ideally throwing with anticipation of how the receiver will choose to break his route. It's a difficult concept to defend, since the QB can choose which of his receivers has the best opportunity and throw to him regardless of coverage. It's hard to blitz, since the inside receivers can punish vacated coverage underneath.
The major challenge is building chemistry. Zone blocking and option-route running are both repetition-intensive schemes. However, when combined with tempo, the scheme can lend itself to a minimalist approach and allow the offense to hammer home the essentials before adding complexity.
What about the rest of the formula?
The Stoops brothers (Matthew Emmons, USA Today)
Oklahoma's offense ranked No. 14 in Football Outsiders' F/+, and both OCs lost their jobs. Its defense ranked No. 39.
Back in Mike Stoops' Sooner heyday, his defenses played an aggressive style looking to outnumber the run, but it was more than just the scheme. The Sooners baited QBs, they jumped on tendencies and they looked to attack the mental capacities of their opponents.
When Brent Venables left for Clemson and Mike resumed control, that element was gone. He allowed Collin Klein to pick his defense apart with easy reads and throws and hand Oklahoma a rare home loss, his defense was totally unprepared to respond to Johnny Football with anything other than post-game barbs and Baylor's Bryce Petty prompted national ridicule of the Sooners' schemes.
Bob responded by moving the defensive coordinator, his brother, from coaching safeties to focusing on outside linebackers, despite Oklahoma already having a linebacker coach, then putting newly hired Notre Dame DB coach Kerry Cooks in charge of the secondary. Such an allocation makes little sense in the nickel-heavy Big 12.
Then star DL coach and recruiter Jerry Montgomery jumped ship for the Packers, leaving Oklahoma without its only effective defensive coach from 2014. Stoops' moves suggest a preference for protecting his brother, rather than providing the defense the overhaul it needed to avoid blowouts in which senior leaders yell at staff on the sideline.
Three years have left data points that say Mike simply isn't the coordinator he once was. Rebuilding the classic formula of aggressive defense matched by quick-scoring offense may not be possible with the current staff.
Building a top program is difficult. Maintaining strength is even harder. Hardest may be rebuilding a program after it's dipped. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.
Stoops has had a legendary run and understands the need for a renewal of the aggressive approach that resulted in eight Big 12 championships. Whether the Sooners' culture can be refocused remains to be seen. The air raid should help. It's worked before.