Coming into Norman, Oklahoma, being touted as a 31-year old offensive prodigy tasked with bringing back the glory of the Air Raid to the Oklahoma Sooners, Lincoln Riley has reached a seminal point in his young career. A disciple of the Mike Leach coaching tree, Riley now helms an offense at a college football powerhouse eager to reassert their dominance in the Big 12.
If you happened to catch a glimpse of East Carolina in the first half of the 2014 season, it was easy to see why Oklahoma would tab Riley as the guy to right their offensive wrongs. In September, East Carolina gave South Carolina everything it could handle, defeated No. 17 Virginia Tech a week after they’d beaten Ohio State (the eventual national champions) and laid waste to a North Carolina squad that came into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium nationally ranked.
When the final horn sounded, Lincoln Riley’s offense had hung 70 points and 789 yards of total offense on the Tar Heels. After claiming dominance over the state with a win over North Carolina State in 2013, the bludgeoning of UNC seemed to reaffirm ECU’s bold claims.
The Pirates had lofty aspirations, eyeing the College Football Playoff’s guaranteed New Year’s bowl bid as the best non-Power Five team. Unfortunately, the offense reached a turning point when inefficiencies in Riley’s system proved hampering.
Against Temple, East Carolina outgained the Owls by over a 3-to-1 margin, but the Pirates managed just 10 points, eating their second loss of the season and effectively guaranteeing that they wouldn’t play in a big bowl game. From there, things capitulated.
ECU lost four of their last six games and finished the season at 8-5 after a bowl loss to the Florida Gators. However, Lincoln Riley’s offense did finish the season No. 5 in the country in total offense and No. 23 in scoring offense. In 2013, they had ranked No. 23 and No. 8, respectively, in those two boilerplate measures of offensive productivity.
That kind of success at a place like East Carolina earns you notice and that’s why Riley is a burgeoning young coaching star that everyone will have their eye on in 2015 at Oklahoma. However, the notion that Lincoln Riley is Mike Leach reincarnated or skinny Mark Mangino, returning to Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (in theaters Feb. 20) the Sooners back to the turn of the millennium is a bit presumptuous.
Riley’s offenses were mostly solid in East Carolina, but if we dive further into the numbers, they don’t paint him as an offensive mastermind just yet.
In five years as the offensive coordinator on Ruffin McNeil’s staff, Lincoln Riley had three solidly productive seasons (2010, 2013 and 2014) and two pretty bad ones (2011 and 2012). Using Skip Holtz’s players, Riley’s offense was 23rd in the country in offensive efficiency according to Football Outsiders’ OFEI ratings. However, in 2011, the Pirates fell precipitously in OFEI to 93rd nationally. The result was a 5-7 season, as ECU missed a bowl game for the first time in five years.
During that season, East Carolina scored just .319 points per play. To put that in context Oklahoma fans can appreciate, the legendary OU offense in 2008 scored .594 points per play. And the 2012 season wasn’t much better, as the Pirates finished No. 76 in OFEI and scored .369 points per play, just slightly above the national average.
Even if you find it difficult to wrap your mind around efficiency metrics and how that translates to wins and losses, ECU was pretty average by any standard measurement, as well. They finished No. 66 and No. 44 in scoring offense in those two seasons. In total offense, they were 50th and 56th.
However, as McNeil and Riley spent 2011 and 2012 seeding the roster with their own recruits, things began to improve. In 2013, with a roster finally comprised of their own players, East Carolina surged in the national rankings for total offense and scoring offense. Its OFEI jumped to No. 40 nationally and it hit its five-year high under Lincoln Riley by scoring .457 points per play. Meanwhile, in Norman, as Oklahoma struggled to find its identity offensively, the Sooners scored just .360 points per play.
Last year, the offense was similarly successful as a whole, despite the dip in production during the second half of the season. East Carolina finished at No. 36 in OFEI and scored .420 points per play. Those aren’t Oregon numbers, but it’s an impressive accomplishment given the personnel Lincoln Riley had to work with in Greenville.
But now that Lincoln Riley has taken the offensive coordinator’s job at a place like Oklahoma, there won’t be any excuses for a lack of productivity. It may take time to fit the personnel to his desired style of play, but when you have a team with Oklahoma’s talent and you mention taking pride in fitting a system to the personnel in your opening press conference, the expectation is that this offense is successful immediately.
Lincoln Riley turns 32 next fall. He is the offensive coordinator at one of the greatest college football programs in the country in arguably the most innovative offensive league the nation has to offer. Because of those two things, it’s easy to see why the expectations are so high.
And, while it’s a bit early to say that Riley is the next big name in coaching, the fact remains, if he can do what his predecessors have done with the Air Raid at Oklahoma, he’ll have his pick of head coaching jobs sooner rather than later.