Lincoln Riley Says Innovation Around the Big 12 Has Produced a 'Defensive Revival'

If OU and the Big 12 are to snap their championship drought in 2021, it'll be because the Sooners and others are playing defense at a much higher level.
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To say defenses in the Big 12 Conference are getting better isn’t technically inaccurate, but it is misleading.

Big 12 defense are better, plain and simple.

Lincoln Riley and Gary Patterson

Lincoln Riley and Gary Patterson

The league has been long maligned for playing bad defense. It’s a reputation the conference members have earned, and it’s been the primary reason the Big 12 has now gone 11 seasons without so much as an appearance in college football’s national championship game.

Even a modicum of average defense in 2017 would have put Oklahoma in the national title game against Alabama, but against a lousy Sooner defense in Pasadena, Georgia became unstoppable.

That’s about when Big 12 schools began addressing their shoddy defensive results, and the league’s defenses have trended upward ever since.

“If you look at it from an offensive perspective, I think some of the most innovative defensive football in the entire country is played in the Big 12,” said OU coach Lincoln Riley.

The future is uncertain, although it looks more every day like the Sooners and Longhorns' futures will unfold in the Southeastern Conference. But in 2021, Oklahoma (and Texas) will play in the Big 12.

Which league plays better defense at the moment?

There’s no debate that the SEC has ruled college football over the last 15 years because the SEC just plays a better brand of defense. Whether it’s 5-star recruits or first-round draft picks, the SEC wins championships because the SEC has better defensive players.

But, just a cursory glance at the NCAA total defense rankings show how far the Big 12 has come in the last few years.

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West Virginia was the Big 12’s highest-ranked defense at No. 4. Texas A&M was the SEC’s at No. 9. The Big 12 had four teams finish in the top 30 nationally. The SEC had only two. In the top 50, the Big 12 landed six teams. The SEC had only four. Only one Big 12 team finished ranked below 100. The SEC had five.

Looking at the big picture, sixty percent of the Big 12’s members finished ranked in the top 50, while just 29 percent of the SEC’s members landed in the top 50.

Riley said the Big 12’s defensive correction — although it took the better part of a decade — was predictable because of everyone’s offensive innovation. The defensive numbers suffered because so many programs placed an emphasis — through recruiting, through hirings, through scheme — on having an explosive offense. Inevitably, Riley said, Big 12 defenses were bound to catch up.

“Yeah I think it’s a response to it,” Riley said. “They got challenged probably unlike any other league, as well, for a long time.

“Some good coaches got in here and put together some great things and yeah, it’s kind of the evolution of it. I think the huge challenge of the great offenses that so many Big 12 years past, I think that’s kind of what brought on this, I don’t know, defensive revival, if you will.”

Of course, Alabama won the national championship. And although the Crimson Tide’s defense ranked No. 32 overall last season — not bad, but certainly not elite — the perception remains that the SEC continues to dominate with defense.

Oklahoma’s defense in 2021 is expected to be at a level Sooner Nation hasn’t enjoyed since 2009. If OU lives up to those expectations and if the Big 12’s national title drought is finally snapped this season, it will be because the Sooners are playing elite defense again.

But Riley expects his team won’t be the only one.

“The talent level on a lot of these teams has really improved, and there’s some really elite defensive talent in this league right now,” Riley said.

“I don’t care who you play non-conference, I don’t care who you play in bowl games, you’re not going to see things you haven’t seen in this league. You’re going to see a lot in this league you don’t see anywhere else. So it’s unique and every week is a challenge.”