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Oklahoma football expectations remain as high as ever, with Lincoln Riley in charge

Bob Stoops’ Sooners had a habit of surprising. What will Lincoln Riley’s Sooners have in store?

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Auburn vs Oklahoma Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Note: This is an updated version of a preview that was posted in May, two weeks before Stoops’ unexpected retirement.

Bob Stoops created quite a legacy by zigging when people thought he was going to zag. That continued right on through his surprising June 2017 retirement.

For most of the 2000s, the now-former OU head coach had the program most likely to hit expectations. Stoops’ Sooners were ranked between first and third in the preseason AP poll each year from 2001-04 and finished in the top six each season. After a blip in 2005 (preseason No. 7, finished No. 22), they grew even more accurate: they started 10th and ended 11th in 2006, started eighth and finished eighth in 2007, and started fourth and ended fifth in 2008.

The second stage of Stoops’ career began in 2009 following OU’s title game loss to Florida. It was successful but far more rocky.

In the last eight seasons, OU won at least 10 games six times, won four Big 12 titles, and finished sixth or better in the AP poll four times. We all wish we could have such up-and-down fortunes. But getting a bead on what OU was about to do became impossible. They began 2009 third in the preseason polls and went 8-5. They began 2014 fourth and finished unranked. They began 2015 19th and ended up the No. 4 seed in the College Football Playoff.

By comparison, 2016 was downright stable — they started third and finished fifth, only the second time in eight years that they finished within nine spots of where they began. But 2017 has already seen a massive curve ball. Stoops suddenly announced his retirement on June 7, with 33-year old offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley named as his replacement.

No matter the head man, OU will begin with expectations. The Sooners are projected fifth in S&P+ and likely would have begun the season somewhere around sixth before the coaching change. Stoops made them the surest thing in the Big 12 and retired having won his final 16 conference games. What changes now?

OU already had to replace three of its most talented skill guys of the Stoops era — running backs Joe Mixon and Semaje Perine and receiver Dede Westbrook — and is maybe coming off of its worst Stoops-era defensive performance.

Baker Mayfield’s presence will help. A two-year starter and one of the two preseason Heisman favorites, Mayfield could almost serve as offensive coordinator at this point. The Sooners will also have the best, most experienced offensive line in the conference. They have the defensive experience that they somewhat lacked last season. Even with turnover in the skill corps, they will probably remain an overwhelming favorite to win a third consecutive conference title.

But for all Stoops can talk about a seamless transition, there’s no such thing here. The last time someone not named Stoops led the Sooners onto the field was November 1998, when Riley was 15 years old.

From a projections standpoint, S&P+ expects six of the other nine teams in the Big 12 to improve this coming fall. Texas has a chance to surge into the top 15, Oklahoma State into the top 10. An experienced TCU could look a lot more like its 2014 self. Baylor is capable of any number of things, good or bad. Kansas State is experienced in all the ways a Bill Snyder team needs to be.

(Snyder, by the way, has outlasted another former protege.)

OU likely remains the 2017 Big 12 favorite, but to say the least, Riley’s first season features plenty of hurdles.


2016 in review

2016 OU statistical profile.

A conference title is not to be taken for granted, but when you’re coming off of a national semifinal appearance, and you’re expected to contend for another Playoff bid, beginning the season with two losses in three games is crippling. OU was not up for the challenge of either Houston or Ohio State.

But there’s still something to be said for dominating when the pressure is off.

  • First 3 games (1-2): Avg. percentile performance: 70% (~top 40) | Avg. yards per play: OU 6.9, Opp 5.6 (plus-1.3) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-14.2 PPG
  • Last 10 games (10-0): Avg. percentile performance: 87% (~top 15) | Avg. yards per play: OU 7.7, Opp 5.9 (plus-1.8) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-8.1 PPG

The Sooners weren’t awful early. They held Houston to just 5.1 yards per play and lost mostly because of field position and special teams. And against Ohio State, they moved the ball well (5.9 yards per play, 403 total yards) but fell victim to the best half of Buckeye receiver Noah Brown’s career and were forced to play catch-up against an Urban Meyer team.

The Big 12 might not have been amazing — per both S&P+ and your own eyeballs, it graded out as the worst power conference — but they still beat seven top-50 teams by an average of 16.4 points following the Ohio State loss. They still closed out a conference title by beating 10-win WVU and Oklahoma State teams by a combined 94-48. They still looked like the team they were supposed to be once Ohio State left Norman.

Well, it wasn’t quite the team they were supposed to be. The offense was even better than expected (first in Off. S&P+), and the offense was truly disappointing, at least for the first half of the year.


Offense

Oklahoma offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Safe to say, Stoops got his money’s worth bringing Riley to town. The former Texas Tech quarterback and East Carolina coordinator was tasked with reviving an OU attack that had lost its way two years ago. The Sooners had plummeted to 44th in Off. S&P+ in 2013 (a downfall from which we were distracted when they torched the Bama defense), and while they rebounded to 17th in 2014, they still weren’t back to the top-10 level that they managed in 2007-08 and 2010-12.

Riley has established a partnership with another former Tech QB — Mayfield — that has benefited both greatly. Mayfield has twice finished in the top four of the Heisman voting, and, well, Riley now gets to occupy the big office in the OU facilities.

In two years with Riley, Mayfield has thrown for 7,665 yards, 76 touchdowns, and only 15 interceptions. OU improved to seventh in Off. S&P+ in 2015, and with the further emergence of Mixon and Westbrook, surged all the way to first last fall. They averaged at least 7.4 yards per play in eight of 13 games and gained a patently absurd 854 yards in 76 snaps against Texas Tech.

(Yes, Tech’s defense was upsettingly bad. But 11.2 yards per play would have been impressive against Lubbock High School.)

Even in an offense-friendly conference, OU was the gold standard.

Oklahoma offensive efficiency and explosiveness

So now what? Mayfield is back for his senior season, which means we’ll have to wait to see what blue-chip Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray might do in crimson and cream. But in Perine, Mixon, and Westbrook, OU has to replace 2,435 combined rushing yards and 2,168 receiving yards.

The new de facto production leader is tight end Mark Andrews, who caught 31 balls for 489 yards as a complement to Westbrook. The second leading receiver is walk-on slot man Nick Basquine. The leading running back is Abdul Adams, who gained most of his 283 yards in garbage time against ULM and Kansas.

Translation: OU needs a lot of new pieces to step up.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma Spring Game
Rodney Anderson
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
  • Running backs: Sophomore running back Rodney Anderson is a former four-star and had a lovely spring. If he can stay healthy — he hasn’t yet been able to in Norman — then he and Adams could form a solid combination.
  • Veteran receivers: Seniors Jeffery Mead and Jordan Smallwood and juniors A.D. Miller and Dahu Green combined to catch 30 of 54 passes for 436 yards and five scores in 2016 [update: Green has since left the team]. Mead was particularly interesting, combining 15 yards per catch with a 56 percent success rate. He also made eight of his 10 catches in the last five games, including a 42-yarder against OSU and scores against Iowa State and WVU. He scored on a 70-yard bomb in the spring game, too.
  • Transfers: Jeff Badet caught 82 balls for 1,385 yards in three seasons at Kentucky and averaged 20.9 yards per catch as a play-action threat last fall. Meanwhile, Marquise Brown is a bouncy four-star JUCO transfer whose stature — he’s listed at 5’11, 157, and word is that might be overstating things a bit — is a reminder of former transfer-turned-star Jalen Saunders.
  • Newbies: Stoops signed three four-star freshmen in the receiving corps: receivers CeeDee Lamb and Charleston Rambo and tight end Grant Calcaterra. One will need to fill at least a backup role.

In the absence of knowns, you want options. And despite the turnover, a backfield of Anderson/Adams and Mayfield, combined with a receiving corps of Andrews, Badet/Brown, Mead/Miller/Smallwood/Green, and Lamb/Rambo will be just fine. Not first-in-Off.-S&P+ level fine, but good enough.

Plus, to say the least, the presence of Big 12 lineman of the year Orlando Brown, plus four other honorable mention all-conference guys, is a boost. Mayfield will be well-protected, and the RB of choice should have his choice of holes.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Florida
Jeff Badet
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Oklahoma defensive radar

Stoops proved willing to make bold changes in the name of keeping his program fresh. Those can work beautifully; he did dismiss a solid coordinator in Josh Heupel to nab Riley.

Other times, though, the results were less brilliant. He parted ways with longtime coordinator Brent Venables following a run of three straight top-10 finishes in Def. S&P+ (fourth in 2009, seventh in 2010, 10th in 2011), allowing Venables to move to Clemson and bringing his brother Mike back to town. There was talk of a stale marriage and whatnot, but the results under Venables had been stellar.

The OU defense has been mostly fine since then — between 19th and 33rd each year — but it hasn’t been elite. And in the first half of 2016, with Clemson playing at a top-6 level for a third straight year, the Sooner D was downright mediocre.

  • First 7 games: Avg. defensive percentile performance: 48% (~top 65) | Avg. points per game: 36.7
  • Last 6 games: Avg. defensive percentile performance: 72% (~top 35) | Avg. points per game: 19.7

After the ultimate come-to-Jesus moment — allowing 59 points and 854 yards to Texas Tech — the Sooners rallied. The WVU game (in which the Mountaineers averaged 8.9 yards per play and Justin Crawford rushed for 331 yards) was a reminder that there were still plenty of ongoing issues. But OU’s defense still allowed fewer than three touchdowns per game over the last six games of the year. In that conference, that’s more than good enough.

Assuming no defensive coordinator change in the near future, can the Sooners not only maintain last year’s improvement but build off of it? I think so.

Moving back more of a 4-3 base seems to fit the personnel well — new Jack end/linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is custom made for a flex position, and while Neville Gallimore is big enough to play the nose on a three-man line, he’s agile enough to do damage in gaps. The rest of the line has enough options (experienced guys like D.J. Ward and Matt Romar, high-upside youngsters like Du’Vonta Lampkin and Mark Jackson Jr.) that finding a solid starting four is likely.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Oklahoma
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (31)
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, the back of the defense should be far more stable. Injury and attrition meant that Stoops and Stoops were spending most of the year trying to find a decent rotation. That, plus the loss of a couple of key attackers up front, resulted in a change from 27 takeaways in 2015 to 17 in 2016. You think nearly one turnover per game might make a difference in your defensive effectiveness?

While free safety Ahmad Thomas is gone, seniors Steven Parker (strong safety), Will Johnson (nickel or free safety), and Jordan Thomas (cornerback) are all back after combining for 7.5 tackles for loss and 28 passes defensed.

Sophomore OLB Caleb Kelly is both less green and flexible enough to play some nickel back if need be. And a few of OU’s most well-regarded incoming freshmen — OLB Levi Draper, corner Justin Broiles, safety Robert Barnes — could find both opportunity and success.

Still, since Venables left town, OU’s defense has ranked above its offense in S&P+ just once and hasn’t ranked better than 19th. A No. 19 defense would allow the Sooners to run away with the Big 12 this year, but that’s the bare minimum for what’s required if we’re to treat the Sooners as a national title contender. It’s also 36 spots higher than what they managed last year. Expecting a defense that good takes more than a little faith.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Auburn vs Oklahoma
Jordan Thomas
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Dede Westbrook ripped off a 71-yard punt return against Kansas. OU’s other 11 punt returns gained a total of 51 yards. Mixon had a 97-yard kick return, and Westbrook had a 63-yarder; the Sooners’ other 33 KRs averaged 19.8 yards. Austin Seibert didn’t make a single field goal over 39 yards.

Despite excellent, unreturnable punting from Seibert, this was an inconsistent, unreliable special teams unit, one that ranked 54th in Special Teams S&P+. That’s not awful, but it could be better. We’ll see if there’s a steadier return threat in the mix this year—consistent 30-yard KRs or 15-yard PRs is better for you than a single great return.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep UTEP 126 42.1 99%
9-Sep at Ohio State 2 -5.7 37%
16-Sep Tulane 94 33.4 97%
23-Sep at Baylor 28 11.3 74%
7-Oct Iowa State 57 21.9 90%
14-Oct vs. Texas 16 8.1 68%
21-Oct at Kansas State 35 12.9 77%
28-Oct Texas Tech 66 23.1 91%
4-Nov at Oklahoma State 22 7.6 67%
11-Nov TCU 21 12.4 76%
18-Nov at Kansas 107 31.5 97%
25-Nov West Virginia 69 24.7 92%
Projected S&P+ Rk 5
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 1 / 39
Projected wins 9.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 16.9 (6)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 11 / 14
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 0 / 3.4
2016 TO Luck/Game -1.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 67% (60%, 73%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 10.8 (0.2)

Coaching change or no, when you’ve won 16 conference games in a row and gone 22-4 in two years, you get some benefit of the doubt. OU will likely remain the conference favorite, and justifiably so.

It’s easy to see how things could go awry, though, for a team that is breaking in a new head coach but living with the expectations of the last one. We don’t know that the defense will improve much, and we don’t know that the skill guys around Mayfield will be anything better than replacement-level.

Mayfield, the offensive line, the experienced secondary and linebacking corps, and the fact that OU has recruited better than anybody else in the conference tells you why OU should still be strong. But with a schedule that features early trips to Ohio State and Baylor and later trips to Kansas State and Oklahoma State, it’s not that hard to see the Sooners tripping up and falling out of not only national title contention, but Big 12 contention as well.

And here we thought Mayfield getting tackled by a cop was going to be the biggest offseason distraction in Norman...

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