This story appears in the Oct. 5, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Monday morning in the Oklahoma war room. Cinema-scale screen on the front wall flickers with game footage. Two yellow legal pads covered with hieroglyphics lie on a conference table. Lincoln Riley gazes up at the scrawling on the white board and the creation entitled Dragon, a play that his offense may or may not have used in a previous game and may or may not roll out in a future one. "Quite frankly, I don't know if I should be sharing this," says the Sooners' first-year offensive coordinator.
At 32, Riley is at the center of one of college football's boldest and most fascinating reinventions: the Oklahoma offense. He has been called a whiz kid, an innovator, the future of FBS and the last hope for the Bob Stoops era, and the faithful haven't been timid in letting the boy genius know the expectations in Norman. At a Meet the Sooners event before the season, Riley, a polite, self-effacing northwest Texas native who looks as if he could be (and, according to his adoring old high school teachers, should be) teaching Math 225 in the building next door, was approached by an elderly woman in a scarlet OU T-shirt. "How are you doing, ma'am?" Riley asked. "I'll be doing just fine," she snapped back, "if you run the damn ball this year."
They've become an ornery bunch, these proud fans, having watched one of this century's winningest programs sink toward mediocrity. For the latter half of the 1900s the team honed a relentless ground attack that fit with the state's steely, no-nonsense image. Stoops arrived in 1999, brash and blustery, and installed a pass-happy system that reaped a championship, in 2000, but also popularized the up-tempo spreads that now dominate the game. (He gave Air Raid practitioner Mike Leach his first big break, hiring him as coordinator in 1999.) Recently, though, the Sooners' identity has, as Stoops says, "drifted." Not as the result of any master plan, they ran for 3,395 yards last year, a total not approached since their wishbone days. The elderly woman at the mixer and other traditionalists didn't much notice or care because the team went 8–5, Stoops's worst finish in Norman since '99.
"It's not like the offense was bad last year—it averaged 35 points," Riley says as he flips through a legal pad (the one for game-planning, not the one for sporadic ideas). The season is three weeks old, and with his team on a bye, Riley had a chance to assess his unit's performance: 41, 31—at then No. 23 Tennessee—and 52 points. "It's a pretty good start, but nowhere near where we want to be," he says. In 2010, Riley became the youngest offensive coordinator in the country, getting the job in Greenville, N.C., when he was 26. Within four years East Carolina ranked among the nation's top five in total offense. Then Stoops called, replacing his co-offensive coordinators with a thirtysomething from the American Athletic Conference in what was instantly hailed as the boldest personnel decision of his career. Some view Riley's hiring as a return to the Air Raid era in Norman, but that's a misunderstanding of the new offense, which bears little resemblance to the vertical passing attacks popularized in the early 2000s by Leach at Oklahoma and, later, at Texas Tech. (For starters the 2015 Sooners have run the ball nine more times than they've thrown it.) What's going down in Norman is Quentin Tarantino rebooting the James Bond franchise or David Chang taking over the kitchen at Chili's: an inspired reimagining of a brand that had gone stale.
How much things have changed became clear quickly, when the Sooners kicked off the season against Akron with walk-on junior quarterback Baker Mayfield under center. In his first start Mayfield broke Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford's school record for passing yards in an opener (388). The following week Oklahoma trailed 17–3 before rattling off 28 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to pull off a defeat of Tennessee that Stoops, the winningest coach in OU history, called "maybe my favorite of all of them." By the third game, in which the 6' 1", 209-pound Mayfield piled up a school-record 572 total yards and six touchdowns in a 52–38 win over Tulsa, analysts were already tripping over themselves to compare the unknown QB—Stoops didn't know who the kid was when the two bumped into each other at a team event last January—to Johnny Manziel. Baker Football, anyone?
The Sooners should be favored in their next six games, leading up to their Nov. 14 showdown at No. 5 Baylor. Suddenly, they're a dark-horse playoff contender and a must-watch both for Heisman voters and for other coaches seeking inspiration to try something new.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed when you have a quarterback with Mayfield's meager experience and a raw defensive line, but the early returns on Stoops's great gamble are promising. They also serve as a reminder that while pressing the reboot button may seem risky, perhaps even desperate, it is often necessary.
College football success is ephemeral, but this season there seems to be an abundance of programs in search of a new identity. For coaches the challenge is remaining one step ahead, "without sacrificing your roots," says Stoops.
"It's natural when you run a system like I have for over 25 years that you become accustomed to doing things a certain way," Brian Kelly said at the start of his sixth season at Notre Dame. He was talking about his decision to bring in new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford from Boise State to enliven the play-calling. "When you get the question, Why do you do it that way? then you have to answer honestly. That kind of turns it upside down a little bit."
Before the 2014 season, after only his second losing record in 13 years at TCU, Gary Patterson didn't turn his offense upside down, he tossed it away completely. Half-measures would have been accepted in Fort Worth in the wake of the Horned Frogs' 4–8 finish—the team was young and had lost four games by three points or less—but Patterson chose an overhaul, demoting his co-offensive coordinators and replacing them with Doug Meacham, the OC and quarterbacks coach at Houston, and Sonny Cumbie, the co-offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, a pair with roots in the Air Raid. It was a stunning shift: The defensive stalwart was suddenly all-in on a system that downplayed the run and allowed for limited clock management.
Patterson regarded the changes as more than a retooling of the playbook. "It's truly a change of philosophy," the coach declared before the 2014 kickoff, equating his old approach, winning 17–13 slugfests, to drinking water while other teams guzzled Gatorade. In no time the Frogs were running on Red Bull, finishing second in scoring (46.5 ppg) behind dual-threat quarterback Trevone Boykin, who had been switched to receiver in '13. When TCU wound up 12–1, Boykin could have become mayor of Fort Worth. The reinvention seems even more prescient now: The No. 4 Horned Frogs have needed to run up scores because of injuries to their defense. After Saturday's 55–52 win at Texas Tech, TCU is 86th in scoring D.
The lesson from Fort Worth: In college football, where five-year plans are about four years too long, even for consistent winners, a tear down is sometimes the only way to stay on top.
Not that every makeover is a success. "These things, they take time," says BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who arrived in Provo three years ago to install a wide-open offense after longtime coach Bronco Mendenhall's run-based attack sputtered. "You mold your offense to the talent you have." This season the Cougars were poised to take off with Heisman candidate Taysom Hill at the helm, only to see the senior break his foot two quarters into the season. "Suddenly we have a freshman [Tanner Mangum] at quarterback, and we're back to square one, trying to find who we are."
With full-throttle passing offenses dominating the game—51 of the 63 quarterbacks who have thrown for 4,000 yards have done so since 2000—schools have been snapping up offensive gurus, but defenses haven't given up trying to slow them down. For four years Kevin Sumlin has presided over a Texas A&M team that has perennially paired dynamic offenses with leaky D's (the Aggies ranked 109th and 102nd in '13 and '14 respectively). This off-season Sumlin poached John Chavis from LSU, where he'd been in charge of the defense since '09. Chavis quickly set about changing the culture, and with their 28–21 overtime defeat of Arkansas last Saturday, the 4–0 Aggies seem to be on their way to building a Wrecking Crew-quality unit. At UCLA fourth-year coach Jim Mora hired former Penn State coordinator Tom Bradley to bring a versatile scheme (not to mention an East Coast edge). The Bruins have a flashy freshman quarterback in Josh Rosen, but the recharged defense has propelled the seventh-ranked Bruins' 4–0 start, capped by a 56–30 win at Arizona. Both A&M and UCLA, after remaking their defenses, have emerged as playoff contenders.
"You have to keep evolving," says first-year North Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. "The game has changed so much on the offensive side over the last 10 years, it's a cat and mouse game where you can't stay stagnant in what you do."
"We very much wiped the slate clean, and started from the beginning," says Chizik, who led Auburn to a national championship in his second year as the Tigers' head coach in '11 and was fired a year later after a 3–9 season. Through four games, the Tar Heels' D under Chizik's 4-3 scheme looks like one of the most improved units in the conference, allowing 14.8 points a game as the team hit 3–1 for the first time since 2011. "We're headed in the right direction but still have a way to go. We realize in this age of instant gratification, we don't have three years to build something."
"I've asked this question a number of times: How did we drift so far?" Stoops is sitting in a stadium suite overlooking an empty Owen Field. In his polo shirt and blue jeans he looks decades younger than his 55 years. "I believe in offense," says the man who arrived from Florida, where he was a vaunted defensive coordinator, and won with offenses that shattered record books. Last off-season Stoops did some research and learned that seven of the top 13 attacks had roots in the Air Raid. "It was eye-opening: I'm thinking, it worked for us. I'd made it popular years ago, and I'm practically the only one not doing it."
The co-coordinators that Stoops sent packing were Jay Norvell and the main play-caller, Josh Heupel (best known as the quarterback on the 2000 championship team). While East Carolina's wild success—third in the country in passing offense and fifth in total offense in '14—was no secret, Stoops had never heard of the mastermind of the unit. He found that Riley first turned heads as a 26-year-old assistant at Texas Tech, when he was thrust into the role of play-caller at the '10 Alamo Bowl against Michigan State. (His boss, Leach, was fired three days before the game.) Knowing that it could be a make-or-break moment—"I don't want to say defining," Riley says, "but you knew it was going to shape the years down the road"—he led the Red Raiders to a 41–31 win and 579 total yards.
Riley is typecast as an Air Raid acolyte, and while the years under Leach's tutelage shaped him, it wasn't until he joined the Pirates that the true experimentation began. "People would say what we did was unique or cutting edge [at Texas Tech], but we didn't do a lot of different stuff there. We just got really good at it," Riley says. "Go back and watch them now, and each game looks about the same. Whereas when I got to East Carolina, I had to learn to adapt to the personnel. We had to learn different ways to get it done."
The Air Raid uses packaged concepts, in which most plays have a run or pass option and the quarterback reacts based on the defense: If a cornerback inches up to defend the edge, the QB dumps the ball to one of two receivers; if the corner stays back, he hands the ball off or turns upfield himself. Riley's take on the Air Raid most resembles Baylor's scheme in general, but he is shaping his play-calling to Oklahoma's strengths—not only Mayfield but also senior wideout Sterling Shepard and sophomore running back Samaje Perine, who ran for a record 427 yards against Kansas last year. As Riley adjusts, the offense that will be on display in November may not look much like the one that the Sooners have run to date.
This much is clear: Despite the Air Raid label ("Things have changed so much someone really needs to come up with a new name," says Riley), the running attack remains integral at OU. "The days of throwing it 70 times a game are starting to phase out," Riley says. "Defenses have caught up, and it's hard to have a good enough offensive line to protect that much, as defensive linemen are getting more athletic and defenses go small to catch up to the speed of the game."
Practices in Norman have become track meets—"We practice light years faster than last year, it's practically game speed up and down the field," says senior center Ty Darlington—which the Sooners also believe will improve the defense (run by Bob's brother Mike for the last four years), giving the unit daily looks at the pace it will face against conference rivals Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.
Time stands still in the heart of Norman. Along Lindsey Street, the main drag through campus, towering bronze statues of the Heisman winners—Billy Vessels, Steve Owens, Billy Sims, Jason White, Sam Bradford—rest along the cobblestone road. Memorial Stadium, the old red-brick shrine, stands out against an impossibly blue heartland sky. Stoops arrived 16 years ago, but it sometimes seems as if he's been here much longer, and faced with the prospect of becoming another frozen monument to the good old days, he chose to pursue the future. What he and the Sooners believe they are now developing is a system that will endure. "An offense that can be whatever the situation needs it to be," says Riley. Of course, they know that if Oklahoma doesn't keep winning, Bob Stoops's great gamble could quickly turn into a colossal failure.
"Our identity will evolve," Riley says. "But soon, people are going to know who we are." He looks up at the whiteboard again, at Dragon, and decides there's no use to keep the play under wraps—after all, nothing lasts in college football, players and coaches and systems come and go. "We ran this against Tulsa," he says, tapping at the shotgun, three wide-out set. "We knew how they attacked the run, so we came up with this play-action, creating an option to go to either one of these two," he says, pointing at two dime-sized circles that represent receivers. "We knew they couldn't cover both of them based on how they attacked."
The Sooners used it to gain 26 yards during a second-quarter drive. "Big play for us there, but nothing too elaborate, really," Riley says. "Just a little new twist to make something big happen."