In his second season in Norman, Lincoln Riley is once again at the helm of one of college football's best offenses. The Sooners currently rank third in the FBS in yards-per-game and eighth in points-per game. As Big 12 play continues for Oklahoma with coming matches against Kansas and Iowa State, those numbers could improve even more before the end of the year.
The 2015 winner of the Broyles Award for being the top assistant coach in the country, Lincoln Riley seems to have figured out defenses. At the ripe age of 33 (making him the youngest winner of the Broyles Award to date), there's no reason to think his career is trending anywhere other than upward. For the insane amount of success he's having, though, there's a curious pattern with Riley's Oklahoma offenses: they start slow and finish fast.
Here's how Oklahoma's offense progressed last year under Riley in terms of both yards and points per game:
First five games: 473
Rest of season: 566
First five games: 37
Rest of season: 47.63
Last year, it took until after the game against Texas to really get things going for the Sooners, but once they figured it out they became almost unstoppable, gaining almost 100 more yards-per-game and scoring more than ten more points each contest. Perhaps some of the trend can be explained by the fact that it was Oklahoma's first year under the new offense, and it was also Baker Mayfield's first season at the helm of the offense. Still, the first five games featured contests against Akron and Tulsa, and there's not much reason to think that the rest of the season (with games against defenses like TCU's and Clemson's) should have seen such a drastic increase in offense.
This year was supposed to be smooth sailing from the start, with Mayfield returning for his second year and the offense having plenty of time to get comfortable with the scheme. The Sooners lost Sterling Shepard, but they also had the benefit of a full season of toying with how to use Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine in tandem. Though we're only through seven games this year, there's still a clear turning point in the offense:
First three games: 479
Next four games: 642.5
First three games: 35.3
Next four games: 50.3
Of course, the schedule may explain some of the difference (two of the Sooner's first three games came against Houston and Ohio State), but the difference is still staggering. I'd also argue that it's not just the opponents that impact Oklahoma's stats; it really does take OU a few games to figure out what it wants to do.
In 2015, my arbitrary division of the season is also the turning point where Oklahoma decided it wanted to run the ball more. In the first five games, the Sooner offense averaged 39.6 carries per game. After that? 47 carries per game. Following the game against Texas, Oklahoma decided to run the ball more and throw it (slightly) less each game. Through the first five games, the Sooners maxed out at 9 more rushes than passes per game. After that, they topped that number five times. It worked; Oklahoma lit up Oklahoma State for 58 total points, and that game saw them run the ball 42 times and throw it just 25. One of two things happened: either OU finally figured out how to run and then used it more, or they figured out that running more often helped wear down a defense. In any case, this change marked a major up-tick in the offensive stats.
This year, the running game has again been picking up (nine more rushes-per-game in the last four games compared to the first three), but that's not the only significant change. Riley has been calling more deep passes, and it's showed up in a big way on the scoreboard. Mayfield averaged 9.7 yards-per-throw over the first three games, which is actually incredible (he would rank 4th in the country with those numbers). In the four games since then, though, his numbers have gone through the roof as he's averaged 12 yards per attempt.
Mayfield's main receiver over the last four games has been Dede Westbrook. For the first three games, Westbrook never had more than 70 yards receiving, and he averaged 9.1 yards-per-catch. In the last four games he's averaged a dizzying 194 yards per game at a clip of 22.15 yards per catch. Not coincidentally, all ten of his touchdown receptions have also come in the last four games. There have been whispers that perhaps Westbrook was not completely healthy for the first few games, but there's no denying that the way in which the Sooners have used the speedy wide receiver has changed drastically, and his numbers are more a reflection of a different style of play than they are of the defenses Oklahoma faced.
Early this season the complaints of poor play-calling were numerous. Despite last season's success, it's clear that memories are sometimes short. People didn't just forget the overall success of last year's offense, but they also forgot that Riley has shown a history of starting (relatively) slow. Whether it takes time for Riley to understand the weapons he has, whether it takes time for the Sooners to fix offensive line issues, or whether Riley is one of the best mid-season adjusters in recent history, the team under his command seems to hit its stride only after having a few games under their belt.
While we should obviously appreciate the ability to amp things up, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that perhaps Riley should find a way to get this started sooner next season. Oklahoma has a history of scheduling difficult non-conference opponents, and next year their second game will come against Ohio State in Columbus. The defense saved them last year against Tennessee, but the Sooners of today don't appear to have the luxury of leaning on defense while the offense works out the kinks. For the Sooners to make it back to the College Football Playoffs, Riley needs to figure out how to drive the Farrari at his disposable much more quickly.
This year, though, fans of offensive numbers should sit back and enjoy the ride in the passenger seat. Once Riley figures out how to maneuver that car, there's no better driver in the country.