MIAMI, Florida — Let’s just start with the obvious: Lincoln Riley’s mind operates on a different level than the rest of us.
When he looks at a defense, he doesn’t see 11 football players. He sees responsibilities and gaps and opportunities.
X’s and O’s flit through his parietal lobe like moths, desperately trying to land. Route concepts and blocking schemes and defensive coverages roil in his subconscious then bubble up out of nowhere, revealing themselves on Riley’s 8 ½ x 11, twice-folded play sheet.
Riley has elevated himself to the forefront of college football’s current generation of offensive coaches. While his counterparts are playing checkers, Riley is conceiving new forms of three-dimensional chess.
Here’s a better game analogy:
“It’s like a Rubik’s Cube,” said Union High School coach Kirk Fridrich. “The people that understand it, it’s real easy for them to solve.”
Saturday’s 7 p.m. Orange Bowl showdown between No. 1-ranked Alabama (13-0) and No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1) is a generation gap of sorts in the coaching industry, old-school Nick Saban versus the game’s avant garde.
Saban, 67, is arguably the best college football coach of all time, or at least the most successful, tying the record of Paul “Bear” Bryant himself with six career national championships.
Riley, meanwhile, all 35 years of him, is in his second year as a head coach.
Looks like a mismatch.
Well, maybe it is.
“I was talking with coach Saban yesterday about the offensive coaches he goes up against,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit told The Franchise, “and he said this is the best guy he’s faced.”
“I’ve been very, very fortunate to be around a lot of great offensive coaches,” OU offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Bill Bedenbaugh told The Franchise this week. “(Mike) Leach, Dana (Holgorsen), Sonny (Dykes), Seth (Littrell), (Josh) Heupel — I’ve been around a lot of good dudes. And he’s as good as I’ve been around, Lincoln.
“Some people, you just see things a little bit different. You know what I mean?”
Consider first that no college football team in the 84-year history of the award has ever produced back-to-back Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks until Oklahoma did it with Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray in 2017 and 2018. That’s almost inconceivable.
But not to Riley.
“He’s one of those rare guys that can see all 22 players at one time,” Broken Arrow High School coach David Alexander told The Franchise. “Most position coaches, even a quarterback coach or most coordinators, they’re watching the coverage or their quarterback, something. They can’t see everything that’s happening. He can see everything that’s going on.”
Simply put, Riley is a football savant.
But he’s also much more than that. He is somehow able to impart his genius to his quarterbacks, and thus the rest of his players. He is a communicator. He is a teacher.
Mayfield and Murray are gifted players, to be sure. No one doubts their physical skills or their mental acumen.
But no one saw a two-time walk-on or a full-time baseball player winning college football’s greatest individual prize, either.
No one, that is, but Riley.
At Murray’s Heisman banquet on Dec. 9, Riley recounted how, after watching film of Murray while considering Oklahoma’s options for landing a transfer quarterback, he told former coach Bob Stoops that if Murray came to OU, he would win the Heisman.
That was in 2015. That’s how Lincoln Riley sees the world.
Oklahoma has led the nation in total offense in each of Riley’s two seasons as head coach. The Sooners ranked second in scoring last year and first this year.
Now, don’t misunderstand. This isn’t Boise State or Hawaii or even Texas Tech leading the nation in offense. This is Oklahoma, one of college football’s bluest of bluebloods. Much like the 2008 OU team under Kevin Wilson that produced a Heisman winner and four first-round draft picks and set numerous NCAA scoring records, Riley’s Sooners — offensively, at least — have been loaded with NFL talent. From Mayfield and Murray to Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, from Orlando Brown and Mark Andrews to Dede Westbrook and Sterling Shepard, Riley’s schemes are executed by good players.
“Actually, great players,” Bedenbaugh said.
Fridrich owns five state championship trophies at Union in Oklahoma’s largest class of prep football. Alexander was an All-American at the University of Tulsa, played nine years in the NFL and just won Broken Arrow’s first ever state title in Class 6A-1. Fridrich and Alexander also regularly produce the kind of talent that Riley and other college coaches seek.
Alexander recalls TCU’s Gary Patterson once saying that ahead of last year’s regular-season game at Oklahoma, he studied every game Riley had called as an offensive coordinator at East Carolina and Oklahoma.
“Then he comes out the first half and runs a bunch of plays that Gary Patterson has never seen,” Alexander said. “He’s designed an offense that’s so flexible that he can change it on a Tuesday and it’s still effective on a Saturday. Most of us, most coaches, you need to put a play in and work it for 2-3 weeks for it to be effective the next Saturday.”
The overall scheme, some say, is actually quite simple. Thus Riley’s one-page play sheet. But like the truck of a mighty tree, there are unseen roots, tangled and winding and impossible to anticipate.
“Lincoln … is innovative,” OU defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill said. “New wrinkles each game. Off of each look that Lincoln shows, there’s gonna be three different, what I call, partner or sister plays that come off that one look.”
Fridrich says Mayfield and Murray could go to the line of scrimmage, take a quick look at the safeties, or the defensive ends, or both, and know exactly where the soft spot in the defense will be before the ball is ever snapped.
Wideout CeeDee Lamb said after the Kansas State game this year that he knew he would score a touchdown when he lined up before a particular play. He ended up wide open and untouched on an 81-yard romp. Against man-to-man defense, crossing routes — whether deep, short, or intermediate — can be a backbreaker.
“A lot of the guys that are really good at it, the spread-type things, they’re making you defend those 53 yards,” Fridrich told The Franchise. “The horizontal spacing is a big deal to those types of offenses. Depending on what type of safety looks there are, that will tell you what zones are open underneath.
“And that allows them to operate at a quick pace because they understand, pre-snap, where those areas are,” Fridrich said. Then, laughing, “That sounds easy in layman’s terms. But that is not easy.”
Riley’s offense, of course, has strong overtones to where he played and launched his coaching career — Texas Tech under Leach. But Riley’s offense also resembles what Art Briles did at Baylor, a spread scheme with power running concepts.
“The run game is similar, and the passing concepts are the same,” said McNeill, who worked with Riley in Lubbock, hired him to call plays in Greenville and then was hired by Riley last year. “I think the play-caller is what makes it a little bit different.”
Versatility is the key. Defenses can’t overload one thing or another, and the Sooners’ offense is great at everything.
“I don’t think one single thing can describe their success,” said Alabama defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi. “But I think their versatility stands out. They’re so well-balanced … whether it’s the targets they have distributed around the field or different ways they can hurt you in the run game, the pass game, the run-pass option game. They do a nice job spreading out the ball and causing you to defend multiple things.”
Oklahoma this year is one of two teams in the country (Houston is the other) that ranks among the top 25 in both rushing offense (253.9 yards per game, 11th in FBS) and passing offense (324.0 yards per game, eighth in the nation).
OU last season set a school record with 8.3 yards per play (the old mark, set in 1971 by Barry Switzer’s inaugural wishbone team, was 7.6). This year, the Sooners likely will set an all-time NCAA record for yards per play (the current standard is 8.6, set by Hawaii in 2006; Oklahoma averages 8.75), though Alabama will have something to say about that.
And this year’s team is doing all this — Heisman, Joe Moore Award, All-American accolades at quarterback and receiver and offensive line, leading the country in yards and points — without possibly its best offensive player, running back Rodney Anderson, who suffered a knee injury in the second game of the year.
Perhaps the final twist on Riley’s Rubik’s Cube has little to do with football itself: he’s a people person, a player’s coach, a cool guy that players love and love to fight for.
“I think it’s something he was born to do,” Murray said. “Certain people are born to do certain things, and I just feel like he was born to be a coach. The way he relates to players, cares about you on and off the field. He’s going to shoot you straight, going to have no hard feelings, but at the same time, he’s going to do what you want him to do. He’s going to be real with you. That’s really all you can ask for. He’s going to coach you hard.
“I think the attention to detail, the creativity in his head, he’s an offensive guru — for me, he’s done wonders for me.”
Saban is something of a defensive savant himself, but he lets his coordinators coach. From Will Muschamp to Kirby Smart to Jeremy Pruitt, Saban’s defensive masterminds have put together schemes that have dominated college football for a decade.
But even Saban’s fiercest defenses have occasionally struggled to slow down wide-open, high-tempo spread offenses. That could be bad news for Lupoi as he puts the finishing touches on Saturday’s game plan.
“Instead of constantly trying to account for what they’re doing,” Lupoi told The Franchise, “we’ve got to hone in on ourselves. Our guys need to understand that we need to do our job.”
It may not be enough. Oklahoma knows its only realistic chance to win this game is to score a whole bunch of points. And in that realm, it’s usually Riley who dictates things.
“What he’s doing,” Alexander said, “he’s using well-coached defenses against themselves. He knows, whoever they’re playing, especially in the Big 12, what the linebacker is supposed to do when Oklahoma’s in this formation and they go in motion. He’s broken down those defenses so well, he knows what they’re supposed to do and what they’re coached to do. And he uses that against them.
“His offense is super flexible, he obviously has a way of getting it across to his kids, and then he’s just smarter than everybody else.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.