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OU Head Coach Lincoln Riley: The Young And The Restless

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Sportswriter Dennis Dodd is an old pal of mine going back to the good ‘ol Big 8 days. Great guy, great writer, hard worker. His recent story at CBSSports.com about Lincoln Riley taking the reins at Oklahoma, at the tender age of 33, is typical Dennis: a strong, fact-filled analysis piece, and definitely worth a read.

RELATED: Lincoln Riley Receives Five-Year Contract Worth $3.5 Million Annually

Below, is a list in Dennis’ piece, showing the 10 first-time FBS head coaches since 2001, ages 30-34 (Riley is 33). He notes that seven of the 10 improved their team’s winning percentage from the previous five years. The information was compiled by the people at SportsSource Analytics. 

* Power Five coach | ^ Improved program from previous five years

2001: Greg Schiano, Rutgers, 34*^

2006: Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern, 31*^

2009: Lane Kiffin, Tennessee, 33*

2009: Steve Sarkisian, Washington, 34*^

2010: Willie Taggart, Western Kentucky, 34^

2012: Matt Campbell, Toledo, 32^

2013: Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech, 33*

2013: P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan, 33^

2015: Neal Brown, Troy, 34^

2016: Mike Norvell, Memphis, 34^ 

Dodd points out that Riley got an early start. At 23, Riley was a Mike Leach assistant at Texas Tech. At just 26, he called plays for the coach he just hired as OU’s defensive tackles coach – Ruffin McNeill at East Carolina. If that doesn’t sink in, think a moment what you were up to at 26.

To me, that’s young.

Importantly, Riley inherits the quarterback he groomed as OU’s QB coach, offensive coordinator and play-caller -- three roles he wisely says he’ll continue as head coach. Baker Mayfield is back, along with a team with the same coaches and many of the same players that won back-to-back conference titles, and finished in the Top 5 each of the past two seasons – and projected to finish around that level in his first season. 

He also inherits a Top 10 recruiting class. Riley has already flipped two recruits -- rated No. 1 (in 2016 and playing what will be his second season in JUCO ball this season) and No. 2 in the state of Oklahoma 2018 class – that many expect to wind up in the Top 10 again.

Many in the media and most in the Sooner Nation are setting the bar high for Riley in his first season. Some of my partners are saying if he doesn’t finish at least 10-2 in the regular season he will have failed.  

To me, whether Oklahoma wins eight or 12 games in the regular season isn’t the be-all end-all. I respect the overall team talent, but because think it’s a stretch to handle back-to-back elite playoff opponents. Talent scouts agree. There is a gap between the top two or three teams and the next handful—which is where I’d put 2015, 2016 and 2017 Oklahoma. While winning a third straight Big 12 title is clearly doable. And if Riley’s first team gets its share of breaks, limits injuries and off-the-field distractions, and Riley transitions in a strong fashion, making it to the CFB Playoff is not out of the question.

But as the latest off-the-field problem surfaces with potential star safety Will Sunderland beginning to unfold, Riley must make astute decisions, and in the process gain respect from a team that already believes he’s the man for the job. Taking that next step up in class will be a short-term challenge; relying on a number of young first-time starters replacing NFL draftees, a defense that is simply not on par with the biggest of the Big Boys, and playing through a challenging schedule. A third straight Top 5 finish would be more of a remarkable Year 1 start than I believe many fans and some in the media assume.  

And after he learns all the facts involved in the Sunderland legal case, how he’ll ultimately decide to go with the safety's discipline. And that one may take awhile. I’m already hearing talking-heads say – before we know the facts – that Riley will lose all respect if he doesn’t kick the young safety off the team immediately. And of course the other side arguing back that “he deserves a second chance.”

Almost as much as I’m interested to see how the wins and losses stack up, I’m very curious to see if the youthful-but-wise-and-hard-charging Riley indeed takes “recruiting to a whole new level,” as he stated to us here on the Blitz a week ago Sunday. More good signs today. Riley snared Tavion Thomas, a 6-2, 225-pound running back out of Ohio. More importantly, OU beat Alabama and Ohio State for his 2018 commitment. It’s that kind of thing that will determine to a very large degree whether Riley sinks or swims.

Just how quickly, smoothly and effectively Riley makes the move from OC to HC is the biggest question of 2017. I’ve personally known every Oklahoma offensive coordinator beginning with Barry Switzer running the show for Chuck Fairbanks beginning in 1968. There have been some fabulous coordinators. But none better than Riley. And if Riley is as effective as the head man as he was drawing in the dirt, the championships will continue for the Sooners. And then some.

My strong suspicion is that Riley will be successful.  And that a decade from now, there’ll be new challenges and perhaps a new conference, but the same head coach. 43-year-old whippersnapper Lincoln Riley. 

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