Note: Longhorns Country's "Around the Big 12" series will feature stories on all 10 programs in preparation for the 2021 season.
ARLINGTON -- Most teams are fighting for their shot at a conference title. Lincoln Riley must be tired of doing that.
Perhaps in the most nonchalant conversation starter, Riley opened his Big 12 media days press conference by reminding 11 other teams of Oklahoma's status inside of AT&T Stadium.
“It’s good to be back in our second home here,” Riley told reporters Wednesday morning.
He doesn't need to go any further, and fans around the Big 12 can't be mad. The fifth-year coach has made it every season to Arlington, and every season, he's walked away with the Big 12 title.
The Sooners want more. This year isn't about winning in Arlington and calling it day. They expect to be in Indianapolis, Ind. for a chance at the national title.
But, isn't that the goal every year?
"I mean, this is Oklahoma," Riley said. "Every year is the year to do that."
The year feels different in Norman for a team who last saw action at AT&T against Florida in the Cotton Bowl. The defense is returning nine full-time starters. The offense is gaining talent at the running back position and on the offensive line.
Riley holds a 45-8 record as a head coach. He looks to add 15 more wins come January, solidifying his status as a top-three coach in the game.
Of course, he has the ace in the hole to help with Spencer Rattler returning under center.
Rattler didn't travel to Big 12 Media Days due to seniority. That didn't stop reporters from murmuring how special of a talent he's proven to be.
And when looking at three NFL starters representing the Boomer State, Riley understands the pressure that comes with being Oklahoma's quarterback.
The difference? Rattler could be the finished product the previous three never could.
"I think he's very well equipped for this, I do,” Riley said of the junior gunslinger. “He's had some great examples to look up to, even as we were recruiting him with Baker (Mayfield) and Kyler (Murray) and then his first year in-house with us with Jalen (Hurts), guys that -- those three probably got more attention than any player in college football at that time, and I think all three handled it extremely well, albeit some in different ways, but handled it very well."
Rattler sat for a season while Hurts lit up the Big 12 in passing. The following year, he showed the fans back home what was missing downfield. He threw for 3,031 yards with 28 touchdowns against seven interceptions. He also rushed for six scores and threw for 300 yards in four of nine Big 12 games.
It was enough to set up a rematch against Iowa State. A fast start led to a sixth conference title. A slow start against Kansas State and the Cyclones early in the year kept them out of the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2017.
Rattler showed he's the name to beat come September. Scouts believe he's a Heisman front-runner and is penciled in to be the first quarterback taken in the 2022 NFL Draft — the third from Oklahoma since 2018.
“He's had some success because he's been a humble team-first guy," Riley said. "And as his career continues, if he'll continue to do that, then he'll continue to do improve at the rate that he has.”
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Rattler isn't the only name on the rise. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch returns for his second season, hoping to improve from what was already an impressive run in 2020. The Sooners went from being an 80th ranked defense under Mike Stoops and Ruffin McNeill to 29th in the nation under Grinch.
He soon will have his chance to follow the likes of Shane Beamer and become a head coach himself.
"He's a good motivator," defensive end Nik Bonitto said. "I can tell you the amount of times that it's just a practice and he's out there treating it like it's a game. Coach Grinch has a lot of examples to be a great head coach wherever he lands in the future."
The offense still runs the shows in Sooner Country — quite literally when thinking about it. Oklahoma gets back two-time 1,000-yard rusher in Kennedy Brooks. They also added Tennessee's leading rusher in Eric Gray.
Brooks, who earned Big 12 honors in 2019, opted out last season due to COVID-19. Fully healthy, no reason to believe he can't grab the triple 1K, right?
“It's great to have Kennedy back,” Riley said. “I give him credit. He's worked hard. Finished spring really strong. The guy has had so much production for us and he's done it in big games and big moments and knows our system inside and out. He's really pushing himself to try to be the best version that he can be here towards the end of his career.”
Rattler still will need to throw. The trio of talent in the passing game should provide stability. Marvin Mims shined in his season with a team-high 610 yards. Theo Wease played a strong No. 2 option. The return of Jaden Haselwood from a torn ACL gives the Sooners a vertical option.
If that wasn't enough, they also added Mike Woods from Arkansas. Last season, he led the Razorbacks with 32 catches, 619 yards, and 10 scores.
Is that enough to set them over the edge?
Iowa State will be looking to run it back after a progressive 2020 campaign. Texas' expectations are high with Steve Sarkisian coming to the Forty Acres. No surprise, the two are expected to finish behind Oklahoma once more.
Riley faces pressure this season. He's proven he can win a conference, but what about it all? He's 0-3 in playoff games, and rumors have fluttered he could be headed to the NFL.
There's confidence in Riley as he leaves his home away from home. At first, Bob Stoops stepped away and named him the head coach of his players.
Four years later, this is Riley's team.
This is Riley's call.
And in Arlington, this is Riley's house and Oklahoma's title to lose.
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