Tramel's ScissorTales: Lincoln Riley's offense was in a three-year decline

·15 min read

Lincoln Riley’s last OU offense took the field eight times in the second half of Bedlam on Saturday night and did not score.

It happens. It happens to a lot of teams that play OSU’s defense this year.

But the shutdown of the Sooner offense paved the way for a 37-33 Cowboy victory, and about 15 hours later we learned Riley was gone. Headed to Southern Cal.

Riley’s OU offensive legacy is set in stone. The Riley offense was full of thrills and awards and points galore. Don’t ever forget that. I assume Riley can do something similar with the Trojans.

But since it’s dump-on-Riley week, I’ll play along. Riley’s offense was in decline.

The final numbers are in on my weekly Big 12 efficiency ratings, and OU, like always, checks in with the Big 12’s best offense. But just barely.

OU’s offensive efficiency of .453 beat out Iowa State’s .441. But that’s OU’s worst offensive efficiency of the seven-year Riley era. And the Riley offenses have been on a steady descent.

OU coach Lincoln Riley talks with quarterback Caleb Williams (13) during a 37-33 loss at OSU on Saturday.
OU coach Lincoln Riley talks with quarterback Caleb Williams (13) during a 37-33 loss at OSU on Saturday.

In Josh Heupel’s final two years as the Sooner offensive coordinator, OU’s offensive efficiency numbers were .304 (2013) and .381 (2014).

Riley arrived in 2015, Baker Mayfield became eligible and the Sooner offense found its gear: .496 (2015), .531 (2016), .542 (2017) and .624 (2018). That Kyler Murray season of 2018 is beyond description. Has to rank among the best offenses in college football history.

But since then? There’s been a dropoff -- .536 (2019), .475 (2020) and .453 (2021).

Some of it is personnel. Some of it improved Big 12 defenses. Some of it a lack of the magic touch for which Riley became known.

OU is changing conferences, but the conference also is changing. Big 12 teams are playing better defense in recent years than they did three, four, five seasons ago.

Don’t believe it? OSU and Baylor rank 1-2 in defensive efficiency. OSU and Baylor meet Saturday for the Big 12 Championship Game. Those two facts are directly related.

Caleb Williams was a freshman sensation for the Sooners, but when OU met up with the Bears and the Cowboys, Riley’s offense went splat: 24 possessions, five touchdowns, one field goal.

Could Riley have turned around the trend? Absolutely. Was Riley’s offense going to dominate the Big 12 like the Star Wars show it was a few years ago? Not likely. Was Riley’s offense going to terrorize the Southeastern Conference? No.

The game is changing. Defense is making a comeback.

Which also is an indictment of Alex Grinch’s three years as OU’s defensive coordinator. Grinch is off to USC with Riley, and Grinch was fine as a d-coordinator. But only if you compare him to the Sooners’ 2018 defensive disaster.

The 2021 OU defense ranked sixth in Big 12 efficiency, at .365. That’s the Sooners’ second-worst efficiency in the nine years since I’ve been chronicling the numbers.

In 2018, Riley fired defensive coordinator Mike Stoops at midstream, and the Sooners limped home last in defensive efficiency, .458. Grinch improved things to .337 (sixth) in 2019 and .272 (fifth) in 2020. But the Sooners regressed this year, to .365 (sixth), in a year when offenses weren’t spectacular. That .365 is OU’s second-worst number in the nine years.

The Sooners’ quest for a national championship had stagnated. It had stagnated offensively and it had stagnated defensively.

That doesn’t mean OU is better off with a coaching change. It means the Sooners had plateaued, and Riley needed to change things. He changed things all right.

Here are the final efficiency numbers for 2021, and remember, they are devised by counting production (or preventing opposing offenses from production) divided by possessions. Touchdowns count full credit, field goals half credit.

Offense

1. Oklahoma .453: By season’s end, the Caleb Williams offense wasn’t that much better than the Spencer Rattler offense, which operated at about .360 efficiency.

2. Iowa State .441: The Cyclones were coming hard at OU for the Big 12’s best offense.

3. Baylor .392: The Bears are good, not great, on offense.

4. Oklahoma State .390: The Cowboys, Baylor and Texas were virtual equals offensively.

5. Texas .387: For a team with massive quarterback problems, this is a rather good number. Keep an eye on that.

6. Texas Tech .368: Historically, the Red Raiders need to be far better offensively to make a real impact.

7. Kansas State .360: The Wildcats were effective on offense with quarterback Skylar Thompson, but multiple injuries to Thompson wrecked KSU’s chances.

8. Texas Christian .324: Not very good offense at all.

9. West Virginia .311: Coach Neal Brown has a better reputation than this. He needs to get the Mountaineer offense going.

10. Kansas .245: Not terrible by Jayhawk standards.

Defense

1. Oklahoma State .150: Historic defense. The best since at least 2009.

2. Baylor .278: Very good defense, unless compared to OSU’s.

3. Iowa State .286: The Cyclones had the Big 12’s No. 2 offense (and nearly the best), the Big 12’s No. 3 defense (and nearly the second-best) and still went 5-4 in the conference.

4. West Virginia .335: WVU is developing a solid reputation for defense.

5. Kansas State .335: The Wildcats always play rather tough.

6. Oklahoma .365: Not good enough in Norman. Maybe the Sooners can find a new identity with the coaching change.

7. Texas .398: Why? Please explain? Why are the Longhorns so mediocre?

8. TCU .510: This is downright awful. The Horned Frogs had a long-time reputation for defensive prowess under Gary Patterson, but declining defense cost Patterson his job in mid-season.

9. Texas Tech .511: Oh boy, this is bad.

10. Kansas .597: You’re not going to win much playing defense like this, and KU didn’t.

Predictions

One fun sidekick to the efficiency ratings is a tool by which we can predict the score of matchups. They are not predisposed to predicting blowouts, but they’re fun to scour.

OSU vs. Baylor in Arlington: Cowboys 27-22. I don’t see this many points being scored, but I didn’t see 70 points being scored in Bedlam.

More: Carlson: How OSU football exceeded all expectations this season, even coach Mike Gundy's

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Playoff to bring fresh teams

The 2021 College Football Playoff figures to be a breath of fresh air.

Clemson has qualified for six of the seven playoffs that have been staged with a four-team bracket. But Clemson is out of the running.

Ohio State has reached four of the seven playoffs. But the Buckeyes are on the outside looking in, needing a wave of chaos to hit Saturday in conference championship games, and that probably wouldn’t even elevate the Buckeyes into the field.

OU has made four of the seven playoffs. But the 10-2 Sooners are stuck in third place in the Big 12 and have no shot at the playoff.

That leaves only Alabama among the playoff mainstays. The Crimson Tide has made six of the seven playoffs, but if Bama doesn’t upset Georgia on Saturday in the Southeastern Conference title game, the Tide figures to be left out of the top four, when the playoff committee rankings are released Sunday morning.

Notre Dame, 11-1, has made two playoffs and remains in the hunt this year. Except the Fighting Irish have lost their coach – Brian Kelly has skedaddled off to Louisiana State, even with Notre Dame in contention.

Of the other playoff participants over the years – Oregon and Florida State in 2014, Michigan State in 2015, Washington in 2016, Georgia in 2017 and LSU in 2019 -- only Georgia is in the mix this year.

Welcome to the club, Michigan and Oklahoma State and Cincinnati.

Those three are the prime contenders, along with Georgia, Alabama and Notre Dame. If Georgia beats Alabama on Saturday night, and the favorites win the title games in the Big Ten, Big 12 and American Conference, it’s quite easy to picture a final four of Georgia, Michigan, OSU and Cincinnati.

Grand total of one playoff appearance among that quartet.

That’s exactly what college football has needed. The sport’s postseason is stodgy. Same old teams, year after year. It’s great if you’re an Alabama or Clemson or Ohio State or Oklahoma fan. Otherwise, it gets old.

New blood and lovable underdogs will enhance the playoff.

Here are my rankings going into the final week before the playoff bracket is set:

1. Georgia 12-0: Not much challenged since surviving Clemson in the season opener.

2. Alabama 11-1: Still a heck of a resume’. If the Crimson Tide plays Georgia tough, don’t count out Bama.

3. Michigan 11-1: I figured the Wolverines would jump Alabama, but when I compare the resumes, Bama’s still is better.

4. Oklahoma State 11-1: It will be interesting to see if the Cowboys jump Notre Dame this week. They’ve got two better wins (Baylor, OU) than the Fighting Irish’s best win.

5. Cincinnati 12-0: If Cincy makes the playoff, it will be a great day for the mid-majors and a great day for the Big 12, which soon will have the Bearcats’ services.

6. Notre Dame 11-1: I literally never have heard of a coach opt-out of a potential championship run.

7. Ohio State 10-2: My comparison model might have the Buckeyes ranked too high. I’m doing the same thing the committee did all November.

8. Baylor 10-2: The Bears have two wins against top-15 teams. OSU would be a third. If a bunch of other upsets happen, I suppose the Bears could sneak into the playoff. Alabama, Michigan, OSU and Cincinnati all lose.

9. Michigan State 10-2: Impressive for the Spartans to recover from their shellacking at Ohio State and knock off Penn State last week.

10. Ole Miss 10-2: By any metric, an excellent season for the Rebels. They beat Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M and Mississippi State.

11. Brigham Young 10-2: The Cougars were 5-0 against the Pac-12, including wins over the Pac-12's No. 1 (Utah), No. 3 (Arizona State) and No. 4 (Washington State) teams.

12. Oklahoma 10-2: Maybe Lincoln Riley was on to something, going to Southern Cal. If OU had played in the Pac-12 this season, the Sooners might be 12-0.

13. Iowa 10-2: Some people have made the case that if total anarchy hits Saturday – Michigan, OSU and Cincinnati all lose, Iowa could have a shot at jumping Ohio State and making the playoff.

14. Pittsburgh 10-2: I don’t know. I probably have the Panthers too high. They lost to Western Michigan.

15. Utah 9-3: Beat Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and the Utes are headed to the Rose Bowl, probably to play Ohio State.

16. Clemson 9-3: Give credit to the Tigers. By season’s end, they were a good team, after that shakiest of starts.

17. Arkansas 8-4: Man, the Razorbacks’ losses are impressive. At Georgia. At Ole Miss. At Alabama. Only losing to Auburn is regrettable. And the Razorbacks beat Texas A&M and Mississippi State.

18. Oregon: 10-2: That victory at Ohio State seems more and more difficult to fathom.

19. Texas A&M 8-4: Turns out, the Aggies have just one Power 5 win over a team with a winning record. But that team was Alabama.

20. Wisconsin 8-4: The Badgers seemed to be on a hot streak and bound for the Big Ten Championship Game, where we would have figured Wisconsin was going to give Michigan a good game. Then the Badgers got trucked by Minnesota.

21. Wake Forest 10-2: The Demon Deacons’ best win is over North Carolina State. The only other win over a team with a winning record is Army.

22. San Diego State 11-1: The Aztecs were impressive in rallying to beat Boise State last week.

23. Purdue 8-4: The Boilermakers have too many good wins – Oregon State, Iowa, Michigan State – to not be rewarded.

24. Houston 11-1: The Cougars were gifted a spot in the committee rankings last week and I’m doing the same this week, primarily because it’s tough to differentiate between teams once you get past 17 or 18.

25. North Carolina State 9-3: Solid team, but the Wolfpack has beaten just one team with a winning record.

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Thunder back on track

Watching a tanking team in the NBA can be bewildering. What’s up is down and what goes around doesn’t always come around.

But this much we know as the Thunder hits the quarter mark of its season. OKC is back on the lottery track.

The Thunder inexplicably won four straight games in early November, and as recently as November 17 had a 6-8 record. “Too good to tank,” said some of my friends.

But our Thunder writer, Saint Joe Mussatto, kept telling me the Thunder’s success was not sustainable. And danged if he wasn’t right.

Since then, the Thunder has lost six straight, and OKC now is firmly back in lottery land.

The Thunder lost at Houston 102-89 Monday night. Now OKC hosts the Rockets on Wednesday night in a lottery showdown.

The inverted standings, from worst up: Orlando 4-18, Detroit 4-16, Houston 4-16, New Orleans 6-17, OKC 6-14.

It doesn’t seem likely that the Pelicans will continue to be this bad, since their malaise was caused by injuries to Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. And among the teams with better records than the Thunder, only 8-13 Sacramento seems capable of falling below OKC.

So it seems like at worst, the Thunder should be in the top five of lottery chances come spring.

That’s important in what is shaping up as an excellent 2022 NBA Draft. Getting in the top two would be particularly beneficial, since Gonzaga’s 7-foot Chet Holmgren and Duke’s 6-10 Paolo Banchero are projected stars.

The 2021 NBA Draft was not as star-studded at the top. A decent amount of parity was in the top five of the draft. The Thunder, unfortunately, fell to sixth in the lottery, though its pick of Josh Giddey has disappointed no one in Thunder blue.

It’s all luck, of course. But the more you lose, the better your luck. The Thunder has gone back to losing.

More: OU football: How has Lincoln Riley's departure to USC impacted the Sooners' recruiting?

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Mailbag: Brian Kelly & Lincoln Riley

The coaching carousel has gone crazy. Lincoln Riley is old news.

Terry: “It only took 30 hours for someone to sink lower than Lincoln Riley. Brian Kelly left Notre Dame and his players just days before they may make the college football playoff without having to play another game? Their path is not unlikely. All that has to happen is for: (a) Two out of these three teams to win on Saturday: Iowa, Baylor, or Houston; or (b) one out of these three teams to win: Iowa, Baylor or Houston AND Georgia beats Alabama decisively. I can't remember anyone doing this since perhaps when Bill Frieder left Michigan right before the NCAA tournament.”

Tramel: And Bill Frieder didn't want to leave the Wolverines immediately. He wanted to finish out the tournament, and athletic director Bo Schembechler uttered one of the great quotes of all time. “Michigan will be coached by a Michigan Man.”

Steve Fisher took over and coached those Wolverines to the NCAA championship.

Good Eats: The Diner

My middle granddaughter, Sadie, turned 12 on Tuesday. So I took her to breakfast before school. We went to The Diner in downtown Norman.

The Diner, complete with a vintage sign outside that proclaims “air conditioning,” is the latest in a long line of chili parlors and diners that have been operating continuously in the shotgun-style storefront for more than 100 years. With a counter and 11 booths (we sat at the counter), The Diner is a throwback to olden days.

We sat and watched our fry cook make our breakfast. I had the Huevos Rancheros – two fried eggs, smothered in ranchero sauce, with pinto beans, layered corn tortillas, with jack & cheddar cheese, served with hashed browns. Fantastic.

Bonnie Amspacher is a fourth-generation operator. The family is locally renowned for its chili and downhome Tex-Mex. Amspacher’s great-grandfather moved the family to Norman during the Great Depression and opened Southside Grocery. In 1989, Bonnie’s father, Mark, opened The Diner, which has been featured on the Food Network by Ty Pennington and Guy Fieri.

The Diner is open seven days a week, 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at btramel@oklahoman.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OU football: Lincoln Riley's offense was in a three-year decline

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