ARLINGTON, Texas — Lincoln Riley gets a lot of praise for winning the Big 12 Conference, for producing Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks, for delivering No. 1 draft picks to the NFL.
But Riley also knows all too well his teams are now 0-2 in the College Football Playoff during his tenure as head coach, and 0-3 overall.
He looks back on those losses — 37-17 to Clemson in the Orange Bowl, 54-48 to Georgia in the Rose Bowl, and 45-34 to Alabama in the Orange Bowl — as opportunities lost, as painful lessons learned.
Riley used the term “agonizingly close” in Miami last year, and he dusted it off again on Monday at Big 12 Media Days.
“You know, we haven’t played complete enough in those semifinal games,” Riley said. “Not necessarily one side of the ball or the other, we just haven’t played a complete enough game to beat another Top 4 team in the country. We’ve been really close, and we’ve had some stretches in all the semifinal games, all three of them, where we played some really good ball, but we just haven’t done it.”
The next step, yes, is winning a playoff game, and Sooner Nation is growing more impatient every year. Eighteen seasons have come and gone since Bob Stoops’ 2000 OU squad shocked the college football world, and Oklahoma is 0-6 since then with a national title on the line.
Those teams the Sooners have lost to — Nick Saban and LSU, Pete Carroll and USC, Urban Meyer and Florida, Dabo Swinney and Clemson, Kirby Smart and Georgia, and Nick Saban and Alabama — have, for the most part, been historically good or had coaches in the midst of an historic career.
Stoops’ teams couldn’t close the deal on the first four, and Riley’s teams came up short in the last two.
Winning a national championship, it turns out, is hard. Really, really hard.
“Obviously, you try to get as good as you can as a team where your margin for error is a little bit lower, and then you’ve got to try to play your very best game again,” Riley said. “So if we’re lucky enough to get that spot again, we have to (play better).”
Meanwhile, Riley and his staff and players have drawn tremendous satisfaction from lording over the rest of the Big 12 Conference. As college football has evolved sharply over the last two decades, dominating their league has been a nice consolation prize for the Sooners. Contenders have risen and fallen and risen again, but OU’s consistency in the Big 12 — two with Riley as offensive coordinator, two as head coach — has been largely unprecedented among the game’s bluebloods.
“It’s just hard every year,” Riley said. “It’s not really (about) staying on top, to me. It’s, we all start at the same place right now. All four of them have been really, really hard to win. And winning it again this year will be just as hard. You’ve got to start back at the drawing board and fight and scratch and claw every week and you’ve got to get better as the season goes on. I think we’ve taken some steps to make us better, but we’ll find out soon.”
As consistent as Stoops’ teams were, as well as they played, as many championships and trophies as they brought home over 18 years, Riley seems to have elevated the program to another level. A national championship, of course, would validate that. But for now, Riley continues to build that foundation by beating his rivals for prized recruits.
“Yeah, you’ve got to win those battles,” he said. “You’ve got to get some of the best players. I mean, the players make it, without a doubt. And you’ve got to capitalize when you’ve been able to do some of the things we have. And we feel like we have. But again, like any of this, whether it’s hiring coaches or bringing recruits in or whatever, you don’t know until it happens. But we’re pretty confident about the group we do have.”
Two key storylines will ultimately determine whether OU breaks its national title drought in 2019: new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and new quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Grinch brings “Just a different vibe and energy on that side of the ball,” Riley said. “He’s a mentality-first guy, which I’ve said a lot, is what kind of drew me to him in the beginning of the search for a new coordinator. And he’s got very high expectations and does a tremendous job communicating that to the defensive staff and to our players.”
And Hurts, after helping Alabama to three national championship game appearances (one title), has been on the ground floor with his new coach, new system and new teammates.
“Just learning to communicate with each other,” Riley said. “… Me learning him, how he learns best, how he thinks. Even things as simple as what he calls this and what I call this and making sure that when we say that word — sometimes so many words get tossed around in football, you may say one word means one thing and (to) this kid, at his other place, it may have meant something else. So we’re just kind of building that relationship. It’s grown a lot. I like where it’s headed.
“I think (the players) were excited to have him here, and he’s certainly become one of those guys on the team already. He kind of has that presence about him, and I think the respect of the team. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. He’s trying to lead, but his focus right now is trying to be the best quarterback he can be, and that’s where it needs to be right now.”
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.