NORMAN, Okla. >> In his first year as Oklahoma’s head coach, Lincoln Riley came within one more touchdown of playing for a national title.
Not bad for a 34-year-old who found out just months before the start of the season that he would be called upon to fill Bob Stoops’ big shoes.
Riley picked up where Stoops left off as the high-scoring Sooners won their third straight Big 12 title, quarterback Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy and Mark Andrews won the Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end.
Riley was Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator for two seasons before being promoted, and the Sooners had two of the most productive offensive seasons in school history. Still, being the boss was different.
“You can’t really understand it until you get in the chair, although I had some unique perspective into it,” he said. “I didn’t at one point through throughout the whole year feel unprepared, though. I never did. I never felt unprepared. I never felt overwhelmed. I think a lot of that was because the staff and team around me.”
The youngest head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision found out quickly that he indeed was ready to make the jump. In the second game in his new role, he led the Sooners to a 31-16 win at then-No. 2 Ohio State . After Oklahoma lost to Iowa State in October, the Sooners reeled off eight straight wins to reach the College Football Playoff. In the national semifinal, the Sooners forced Georgia into its worst defensive performance of the season, but the Bulldogs escaped with a 54-48 double-overtime victory on Monday.
Mayfield and the Sooners had their chance in the first overtime after Georgia was held to a field goal. Oklahoma stalled, and had to settle for a tying kick.
Even with the bitter ending — as of this morning, Riley had not watched film of the game — he deemed the season a good one.
“We won 12 games and we won a guy Big 12 championship,” he said. “A guy won the Heisman. We had a boatload of All-Americans. Absolutely, yes. Was it everything we wanted it to be? No. We wanted to win a national championship and we had a chance to do it. To say it wasn’t a success, then you’re saying there’s only one successful team a year.”
Riley said Georgia was exceptional defensively, and the Sooners will need to improve on that end to take the next step. He said the incoming recruiting class will help.
“You look on the field with the two defenses, and one of them looked a little bit different than the other just physically,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to grow in that area. I think we’re starting to.”
Riley praised defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, who was a target for critics after Georgia gained 527 yards against the Sooners, including 340 on the ground.
“Mike is a really good coach,” Riley said. “I have a lot of confidence in him as I do our whole staff. To do what this staff and this program did this year with all the changes and all that, it’s unprecedented. People better remember that, too.”
Now, for the first time at Oklahoma, Riley will prepare for games without Mayfield. Kyler Murray, this season’s backup, is the front-runner, but Riley said Austin Kendall and incoming freshman Tanner Mordecai could figure into the mix.
“I’ve had a great run with Bake,” Riley said. “No doubt about it, we all have. But it’s also fun getting on to the next stage of it. I’ve had to do it several times during my career. We’ve always found a way to get a guy who can get first downs. I feel confident we’ll be able to do the same. It’ll be a fun battle.”