For the first time in his ultra-successful (albeit short) stint as Oklahoma head coach, Lincoln Riley won’t open the season with a celebrated veteran quarterback.
Will it matter?
Riley’s three-year run in charge of the Sooners features a 36–6 record and an annual place in the College Football Playoff.
All three seasons have ultimately ended in disappointment: CFP semifinal losses, preventing Oklahoma from posting its first national championship since 2000. But they all featured plenty of thrills, too, including Heisman Trophy winners in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, as well as the Heisman runner-up a year ago in Jalen Hurts.
This year’s starting QB, whether it’s Spencer Rattler or Tanner Mordecai, will be taking his first meaningful college snap. That’s different, yet exciting, for Riley.
“These guys are ready,” Riley says. “They’re good enough, they’re talented enough. It’s their time.”
Previewing Oklahoma's Offense for 2020
While Riley wasn’t close to naming a starter before spring practices were shut down due to coronavirus concerns, many expect Rattler to win the job as a redshirt freshman.
A former five-star recruit and the consensus No. 1 quarterback in the country as a prep star in Phoenix, Rattler passed for an Arizona state high school-record 11,083 yards and 116 touchdowns during a dominant career.
Mordecai redshirted in 2018 and then served as the primary backup a year ago, completing 16-of-26 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns. Like Rattler, he was a premium recruit (out of Waco, Texas).
The shortened spring will create urgency in identifying who’s No. 1 in August. “Nobody’s promised anything, nobody’s given anything, they have to earn it.” Riley says. “Quarterback position’s no different.”
Also pressing, the Sooners are looking for a go-to receiver, after CeeDee Lamb left for the NFL as a Biletnikoff Award finalist and consensus first-team All-American. Lamb averaged 102.1 receiving yards per game, nearly twice the output of Charleston Rambo, who’s expected to fill the void. Lamb’s 14 TD receptions were more than any other four Sooner receivers combined. UCLA transfer Theo Howard (if healthy after an offseason injury) and talented H-back Jeremiah Hall will likely fill key roles, especially after the loss of Jadon Haselwood to an offseason knee injury.
Running back Kennedy Brooks isn’t flashy, but he’s efficient, rushing for 1,011 yards in 2019. The ground game took a hit, though, when Trey Sermon left for Ohio State.
The offensive line is a strength, offering comfort for the young quarterbacks. Four starters return up front, led by elite, physical center Creed Humphrey, the Big 12’s Co-Offensive Lineman of the Year and one of three finalists for the Rimington Trophy.
Previewing Oklahoma's Defense for 2020
As the Sooners posted their fifth straight Big 12 title and advanced into the CFP, again, many hailed the defense as new and improved under first-year coordinator Alex Grinch, with stats to back it up.
Then they were torched for 63 points and 693 total yards by LSU in the semifinal, much of it coming in a first half that created a blowout and another layer of anguish for Sooner fans.
Oklahoma, while better statistically, also lagged in takeaways, finishing at No. 121 nationally.
Those questions now carry into 2020. And the Sooners must replace key figures, including leading tackler and tone-setter Kenneth Murray at linebacker. A new starter is needed up front, along with a replacement for top coverage man Parnell Motley at corner.
There are positives on the defense, including nine starters returning. Linebacker Caleb Kelly, who missed the first 10 games last year with an injury, was expected to play a key role at the position for 2020. However, Kelly suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fall.
Potential star power exists with linemen Ronnie Perkins — although he’s facing the possibility of a suspension that could carry into the season — junior college transfer Perrion Winfrey and redshirt sophomores Jalen Redmond and Jordan Kelley. DaShaun White, a starter at linebacker and the team’s fourth-leading tackler last season, steps into the Murray role as a physical presence.
There are depth concerns at corner, but Tre Brown is a returning starter, and the safeties, led by Pat Fields (64 tackles), could be special.
Previewing Oklahoma's Specialists for 2020
Oklahoma may boast the league’s best kicking game. Gabe Brkic was a Freshman All-American and second-team All-Big 12 pick after making all 17 of his field-goal attempts. While not needed much, Reeves Mundschau averaged 42.4 yards on his 38 punts, with 12 downed inside the 20. The return units, led by Tre Brown, also offer dynamic appeal.
There are reasons to expect the Sooners to take a step back, with several key holes either requiring guys previously in supporting roles to prove themselves as premium playmakers, or fresh faces to seize the spotlight, especially at quarterback.
But at Oklahoma, both scenarios are reasonable.
The Big 12 should be better, with young quarterbacks who were thrown into duty in 2019 seemingly ready to elevate their teams. But if Rattler or Mordecai lives up to the hype, and Oklahoma’s recruiting edge produces a reload, the Sooners could be back in the CFP picture again.