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Oklahoma Sooners Football—Replacing a Legend: Lincoln Riley Faces Pressure and Possibility

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How can Riley live up to expectations and his predecessor?

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s going to take a long time — maybe a few months, maybe several years — before Oklahoma Sooners fans think “Lincoln Riley” when they think “OU head coach.” Bob Stoops, it seemed, was going to be around forever, a never-ending presence like James Bond movies or the state fair.

Sure, the term “coach in waiting” had been thrown around to describe his prodigy coordinator Lincoln Riley. But it’s one thing to call someone a coach in waiting and quite another to see him being introduced as such next to David Boren and Joe Castiglione.

(Good thing I didn’t bet on Boren going before Stoops.)

After the shock wears off and the reverent Stoops tributes subside, Riley will take the field as the new face of a blueblood college football program with sky-high expectations. There is no rebuild to accomplish here. What can we expect from the Riley Era of Oklahoma football?

Well for one thing, we can expect Riley to get little credit for whatever early success he achieves. Pundits and fans will go out of their way to point out — accurately — that Riley inherited a train chugging full speed ahead. Back-to-back Big 12 titles, a Heisman-candidate quarterback and a clear path to the College Football Playoff have all been handed to Riley by his predecessor. Few coaches in history have ever had it so good so soon.

But with great advantages come great expectations, and you can bet Riley will hear it from all sides if he doesn’t win Oklahoma’s third straight conference title this year. Not a fireable offense, of course, but this OU fanbase has enjoyed a consistency that few programs ever see. Even Stoops had his down years, but swift corrections were demanded and always achieved.

I see no evidence, however, that Riley will struggle out of the gate. Every indication so far, in fact, suggests that Riley is uniquely qualified to succeed as the youngest coach in the FBS and continue OU’s tradition of winning. Stoops is an impossible act to follow, but Riley would be my first bet to get it done.

He’s inspired a fierce loyalty from his players during his short tenure, causing Ty Darlington to go from a skeptic to advocate in just one year. His offense won’t slow down, as he’ll still handle the playcalls, and his defense has the personnel and new blood to far outperform last year’s unit.

Sure, there are lots of unanswered questions about the Riley Era — we still don’t know what the coaching staff will look like when the season begins on September 2. And not everyone makes the transition from Great Coordinator to Great Head Coach. It’s a different job with trickier dynamics and more responsibilities.

But the No. 1 reason why I believe Riley can get it done is because Bob does. Based on his statements today, Stoops walked away only because he trusts Riley with everything he has built. Stoops has proven over and over again his dedication to Oklahoma. If he thinks the program is in good hands, then so do I.

Riley has a lot to prove. No one will go easy on him. No one will cut him a break. He inherits a great situation, and one filled with pressure and expectations.

But if he’s the coach Bob thinks he is, we might still be talking about Coach Riley 18 years from now. After all, the dude’s only 33. He’s got a whole bright future ahead of him, and hopefully Oklahoma football does, too.