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Lincoln Riley takes veiled (or not so veiled?) shot at Oklahoma

Riley thinks he can build a better roster at USC than Oklahoma. Is that a shot at OU or himself?

In the months since America's most bitter divorce this side of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, Lincoln Riley has largely kept Oklahoma's name out his mouth. 

Oklahoma has talked about Riley plenty. Bob Stoops, specifically. He's trotted out the "Lincoln Riley did not invent Oklahoma football" everywhere from OU's press room to the Oklahoma statehouse

The only time I can find Riley giving even a hint of confrontation in OU's direction -- other than, uh, swiping Caleb Williams, Mario Williams and Latrell McCutchin out of the Transfer Portal -- was this TikTok, where Riley appears in an official USC video but doesn't actually say anything himself.

That changed (a little bit) in this interview with Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports.

The crux of the piece is Riley correcting the notion he was "scared" to compete in the SEC. The move, Riley said, was less about what Oklahoma isn't and more about what USC is. (And, after growing up in the Texas panhandle, also about not wanting to spend his entire life on the flat lands of the American plains.)

There, Riley said this:

"I've walked into four playoffs, and I've never had better than maybe the third-best roster [of the four teams]," Riley said. "Every other year, we were four of four. We had really good rosters, but they weren't the same. … I can't imagine that there could be a setting that we could build a better roster than we can here."

This is where Oklahoma fans are likely to get their crimson-and-cream feathers ruffled. But should they? Let's take a speed walk through the Lincoln Riley era at Oklahoma.

2014: After beginning the year No. 4 in the AP poll, OU posts its worst season of the Bob Stoops era. The Sooners are blown off Owen Field by Baylor, gag away a home game to Oklahoma State, then are thoroughly embarrassed by Brent Venables and Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl. OU finishes fourth in the Big 12 (its fourth straight season without an outright Big 12 title, the longest skid of the Stoops era) and finishes outside the AP Top 25 for the second time since 2000.

Long story short, the Sooner Schooner is losing steam, fast. Stoops fires Josh Heupel, a national-title winning OU quarterback, and hires the outsider Riley.

2015: The combination of Riley and Baker Mayfield immediately jolts Oklahoma. The Sooners come from behind to win at Tennessee, shrug off a loss to Texas and win seven straight games to claim an outright Big 12 title and reach the College Football Playoff.

2016: September losses to Houston and Ohio State eliminate OU from CFP contention early, but the Sooners become the first team to run through a 9-game, round-robin Big 12 schedule undefeated, then beat Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. The offense improves from 6.8 yards per play to 7.54 (second nationally) and finishes third in scoring.

2017: Bob Stoops' shocking retirement plays exactly as anticipated. Riley takes head coaching duties in stride, as the Sooners overcome a shocking loss to Iowa State to once again win the Big 12 and reach the CFP. The offense averages a national-best 8.29 yards per play and Mayfield wins the school's sixth Heisman. Oklahoma jumps out to a 31-14 lead over Georgia in the Rose Bowl but ultimately loses in double overtime. Considering how the Sooners matched up with Alabama, it's more than fair to wonder if OU left a national title on the table. 

2018: Riley makes his first mistake as a head coach in retaining Mike Stoops as defensive coordinator. That mistake is belatedly rectified after OU allows 48 in a loss to Texas, but it's too little, too late by that point. The offense is even better (an FBS record 8.6 yards per play) and Kyler Murray wins the school's second straight Heisman, but even the best offense of all-time can't overcome a horrific defense. OU wins the Big 12 and reaches the CFP again, but the Sooners are quickly dispatched by Alabama, who is then blown out by Clemson.

2019: A third-straight transfer quarterback (Jalen Hurts) finishes runner-up in the Heisman voting, but the 2019 team is clearly a step behind its predecessors. Riley addresses the defense by hiring Alex Grinch as coordinator, and the team overachieves by once again winning the Big 12 and reaching the CFP. The Sooners are blown off the field by eventual champion LSU.

2020: Playing the first homegrown quarterback of the Riley era, Oklahoma drops the first two Big 12 games of a pandemic-altered season. The Sooners fend off oblivion by beating Texas in four overtimes and win the next seven after that, including a payback defeat of Iowa State in the Big 12 title game. While they do lift the conference championship trophy for the sixth straight season, Oklahoma misses the CFP for the first time in Riley's four years as a head coach.

2021: With Spencer Rattler returning for a third season in the offense, Oklahoma enters the year ranked No. 2 with legitimate national title expectations. Instead, the season is an undeniable disappointment. Rattler is booed at home in a 16-13 win over West Virginia, then replaced midway through the Texas game. Caleb Williams sparks a comeback, but Oklahoma later loses to Baylor and Oklahoma State. It's the first time in Riley's even years that the Sooners have: A) lost Bedlam, and B) missed the Big 12 title game.

Riley leaves the program the following day.

Now, with Williams returning, perhaps Oklahoma recovers and returns to its rightful place atop the Big 12 among the nation's elite if Riley and company return this fall. Or maybe we can no longer make that assumption.

It's an objective fact that the longer Riley remained atop Oklahoma football, the further Oklahoma football became from its first national championship since 2000. 

Riley himself tacitly admits that in his own quote above. Oklahoma's best roster was the one he had the least influence over. 

SeasonRecruiting ClassAP Finish

2017

No. 8

No. 3

2018

No. 9

No. 4

2019

No. 6

No. 6

2020

No. 13

No. 7

2021

No. 10

No. 10

That's why Sooner Nation's reaction to Riley's departure has been so perplexing. The same people will tell you in one breath that Riley committed treason in leaving, and in the next admit the program was falling off and was overdue for a culture reset. 

But no one asked college football fans to be rational. 

At this point it doesn't make either side of the Riley/OU divorce to keep talking about each other, but I hope neither one ever stops talking their way through it.