Heading into the 2021 Big 12 Media Days in Arlington, TX, Sooners coach Lincoln Riley found himself in a familiar position, answering questions about his team’s championship aspirations. What wasn’t familiar was the inherit belief that his offense wouldn’t need to shatter records in order for his team to have a chance at the program’s 8th national championship.
Despite multiple playoff appearances since he first arrived in Norman as the Offensive Coordinator in 2015, Lincoln Riley has yet to win a playoff game despite multiple record-breaking seasons from Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.
Following the dismissal of Sooners longtime Defensive Coordinator Mike Stoops, Riley hired Ohio State’s Alex Grinch to rebuild the once-vaunted Sooner defense. While the program had enjoyed tremendous conference success over the near two decades prior, its one national title this century came in 2000 -Bob Stoops’s second season as head coach. Since that time, Oklahoma has reached the national title game three times, losing each time, and is 0-4 in playoff games since the College Football Playoff was instituted. The defense needed to be rebuilt, and Grinch was seemingly the perfect man for the job.
Prior to his lone season at Ohio State where he served as the defensive backs coach, Grinch spent three years at Washington State, elevating a once dreadful defense into a top 60 defense. Considering we’re talking about Washington State and a team whose head coach at the time was Mike Leech, that’s quite the accomplishment and one OU’s 100th+ ranked defense in 2018 would have killed for.
Simply put, give Riley an average defense in 2017 with Mayfield or 2018 with Murray and Oklahoma is hoisting titles 8 and 9 in Norman. Even the 2019 squad with former Crimson Tide signal-caller Jalen Hurts may have been capable of going the distance if its defense weren’t such a liability.
Grinch’s first year in Norman showed improvement but nothing that turned heads. This was evident when Joe Burrow and LSU absolutely dismantled the Sooners in the 2019 College Football Playoff. The team was better defensively but Grinch’s system would take time for the players to learn and for new recruits best-suited to fill the roles arrived.
2020 proved to be another up and down year for Oklahoma. Yes, OU -despite an 0-2 start in conference play- still won the Big 12 Championship for a 6th consecutive season but in each loss, the Sooners defense found itself helpless to stop an inferior opponent from turning the tide and ultimately beating them. As the year wore on, however, the defense rounded into form, becoming a top 30 defense as Oklahoma rallied from its early struggles to win the conference title and then manhandle Florida in the Cotton Bowl. While the Gators may not have had their full assortment of players at their disposal, they did have their Heisman finalist, whom the Sooners picked off 3 times in the first half.
While this may have been a bit of a surprise to national pundits -which was still downplayed due to Florida having several players opt out of the game- the Sooners ranked 3rd in interceptions, 4th in 3rd down conversion rate, and 9th in defensive passing efficiency on the season -a far cry from the porous unit that had hamstrung the Sooners the previous few seasons.
Heading into Grinch’s third season, the hype around Riley’s Sooners is as high as it’s ever been, and a great deal of that is due to the defense. Not only does Grinch’s unit return the majority of its playmakers but another strong recruiting class infuses additional talent that can make a real impact.
“The progression has been great,” Riley said at the Big 12’s 2021 Media Days. “We were much improved in year one, we took a big step in year two, and our plan is to take another big step here.”
As Riley noted several times in his press conference, the expectations at a program like Oklahoma are always tremendous, but between the change in philosophy and improved recruiting on the defensive side of the ball, the Sooners feel for the first time like they’re playing with a full deck.
Riley has been forced to try and win with an otherworldly offense only and is 0-4 in the playoffs as a result despite multiple Heisman trophy winners in his short tenure. Fixing the defense and making the right hire was the only way the Sooners could hope to bring home an eighth national championship and their first in 21 years.
Whether or not 2021 proves to be the year Riley and company get over the hump remains to be seen, but his confidence in Grinch and his staff is unquestionably high heading into the season.
“Extremely high expectations for our season, but I believe we have the right people in the room to get it done.”