Back in January, the decision by Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley to pursue quarterback Jalen Hurts as a graduate transfer, while obviously understandable, didn’t make complete sense.
Hurts, a two-year starter for the Alabama Crimson Tide who eventually lost his job to Tua Tagovailoa, didn’t fit the mold of an OU QB at all. He was known for his skills as a runner and a leader, not as a thrower.
Even with a season at OU under his belt now, Hurts’ play won’t draw any comparisons to back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. Nevertheless, after losing a second consecutive No. 1 pick in the NFL draft at quarterback, OU’s coaching staff reoriented its offense in nine months around a replacement from outside the program whose best asset is his legs. The Sooners rolled out a rebuilt offensive line after sending four starters to the NFL. They were also looking to replace a first-round draft pick at wide receiver.
Oklahoma still ended the regular season with an offense that ranked second in the country in offensive efficiency despite the headwinds.
What the Sooners achieved on the other side of the ball stands out even more. In his first year with the program, Alex Grinch didn’t have any eleventh-hour saviors show up on his doorstep to help him transform OU’s defense. He didn’t need a grace period.
Working with almost the same personnel as the previous defensive coaches, the Sooners cut their average points allowed per game by more than 25%. They shaved their average yards allowed per play from 6.1 to 5.3, a decrease that took the Sooners down from 102nd nationally in 2018 to 41st. In 2018, OU ranked 84th in defensive efficiency. The team ranked 36th this season.
In theory, this was the year in which OU was begging to be knocked off its perch atop the conference. Considering the Texas Longhorns were bringing back a star QB who helped lead the team to an appearance in the Big 12 championship game and a Sugar Bowl win over the Georgia Bulldogs, the competition figured to be fierce.
Seeing as OU won five games this season by a touchdown or less, the Sooners did their best to end their own streak. Instead, with so much working against them, they still won the league crown... for the fifth year in a row... as expected. They’re also returning to the College Football Playoff for the fourth time in five years.
For the rest of the conference, this has to feel all kinds of deflating.
If history tells us anything, OU’s run at the top of the Big 12 should be drawing to a close. Five years is an eternity in college football. Not to mention, the Sooners won at least 10 games nine times in the last 10 seasons – we’re really talking about more than just five years.
Bringing in Hurts as a one-season rental at QB might signify one last gasp before an inevitable down cycle. In reality, adding Hurts looks more like a win-now bridge to a new era. (Frankly, it often felt as though the Sooners were winning this season because they could stave off the potential disasters he created.)
Hurts will move on after this year, but OU has an ultra-talented gunslinger waiting in the wings in freshman Spencer Rattler. With Rattler behind the wheel, Riley can shift back to the explosive aerial attack he brought with him to Norman from East Carolina.
Meanwhile, all the youngsters who cut their teeth on the offensive line this year will return in 2020. As many as four starters from the group may be back next season, depending on if center Creed Humphrey opts for the NFL.
The skill positions will stay loaded as ever. The top three running backs from this season may come back. Although receiver CeeDee Lamb will likely turn pro, the Sooners can still turn to flashy playmakers at receiver like Charleston Rambo, Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease and Trejan Bridges. Additionally, big-time TE Austin Stogner will have every opportunity to shine in 2020.
And running back? Well, we all know how deep that room will be in 2020 and beyond.
OU has excelled on offense for decades now. What’s new is the legitimate optimism surrounding Grinch’s reinvigorated defense, which boasts a proof of concept in light of this year’s turnaround.
The departures of nose tackle Neville Gallimore and cornerback Parnell Motley will hurt, and linebacker Kenneth Murray will probably join them in the NFL draft pool this spring. However, the early returns on the stars of tomorrow seem promising. Did you see what Jalen Redmond and Nik Bonitto did in the Big 12 title game, for instance? Have you seen what Ronnie Perkins has done as a true sophomore?
Of the top 15 tacklers from the ‘19 squad, 11 will probably be back next season. Nine of them qualify as underclassmen this season.
On top of all that, Riley and his staff are set to add another batch of highly touted recruits to OU’s roster in 2020, and you should expect OU’s defensive staff to end this cycle with a flourish.
So who’s going to stop the Sooners’ streak?
Texas? Sam Ehlinger and a slew of talented prospects will be back in Austin next season – learning new systems on both sides of the ball and playing for a coach in Tom Herman whose seat is heating up rapidly.
Baylor? Take a look at what they’re losing on defense, which was the heart of the team this season.
Oklahoma State? There’s a lot to like about the Cowboys in 2020, including explosive young quarterback Spencer Sanders and loads of experience on D. The potential departures of running back Chuba Hubbard and wide receiver Tylan Wallace weigh heavily on the Pokes’ future, though, and the Bedlam game is going to be in Norman.
Iowa State? Let the Cyclones crack the eight-win mark in a season before we consider that possibility.
Successful athletes and coaches often talk about the challenges of staying on top once you win a championship. Supposedly it’s even more difficult than getting there in the first place.
OU’s stranglehold on the Big 12 suggests otherwise. Frankly, the Sooners aren’t showing any signs of slowing down after five years as the Big 12’s top dog. OU’s window of opportunity isn’t closing; it actually appears to be as wide open as ever.