The news of Caleb Williams' transfer from Oklahoma came as a shock for many OU supporters and college football fans alike. However, it shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise. Following Lincoln Riley's unexpected departure for USC, the Sooners' future has arguably never been more uncertain. A coaching staff overhaul, talented players such as Williams entering the transfer portal, and an impending move to the most difficult conference in all of football make this a pivotal offseason for Oklahoma.
Lincoln Riley Leaves For Southern California
Although he never won a National Championship during his time in Norman, few coaches across the nation were more respected than Lincoln Riley. The 38-year old Lubbock, Texas native went a stellar 55-10 over five seasons as head coach. During those years, Riley took the Sooners to the College Football Playoff three times, developed two Heisman-winning quarterbacks, and won four Big XII conference championships.
Such a high level of success explains why fans and analysts alike were so shocked when Riley bolted for Southern California. The Trojans, having been largely irrelevant in recent years, didn't strike anyone as a threat to poach Oklahoma's star coach. However, Riley claimed that the opportunity to revive a historic program was simply "too good to pass up," on top of the school's lucrative resources and the many talented recruits residing in California.
The immediate aftermath of Riley's decision is still being seen. Quarterbacks Spencer Rattler and Caleb Williams have entered the transfer portal this offseason, with the former already committing to playing at South Carolina next year. There is the chance Williams returns, but it seems unlikely after Oklahoma's move to snag Dillon Gabriel from UCF. Gabriel, a three-year starter for the Knights, has plenty of talent, but is unquestionably a downgrade from Williams, who played at a Heisman-quality level once he took over the starting job from Rattler midseason. Other offensive difference-makers such as freshman wide receiver Mario Williams have entered the portal as well.
Brent Venables Returns As Head Coach At Oklahoma
Riley's fit with USC might have been great for Trojans fans, but the Sooners were understandably left in shambles. Luckily, they found a worthy replacement in Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Venables, who had coached at Oklahoma prior to taking the DC job at Clemson in 2012, has long been seen as one of the nation's most respected assistant coaches. Seemingly every year his name has popped up in coaching carousel rumors, but the 51-year old wisely waited for a high-profile job to open up before leaving Dabo Swinney's staff.
Even though the Venables hire was a smart one, it doesn't change many of the problems currently facing Oklahoma. Riley was an offensive recruiting guru, capable of building up quarterbacks and creating an NFL pipeline that was appealing to high school QB's. With Venables replacing him, one might expect the focus on the recruiting trail to shift towards defensive players. Long-term, this might serve the program well as they transition into the hard-hitting, defense-first SEC in 2025. However, in the current, a depleted offensive roster doesn't bode well for Oklahoma, with rising powers such as Oklahoma State and Baylor looking like preseason conference favorites. If the Sooners limp into SEC play, it may not bode well for their ability to nab star recruits, with more appealing in-conference options lurking.
Despite the legitimate concern over Oklahoma's current direction, there is plenty to be optimistic about. The university has always managed to balance team success with training NFL-ready players, a reputation won't disappear without Riley. Venables brings instant credibility, years of experience, and a strong defensive mind with connections to OU legend Bob Stoops. With a dedicated fanbase, top-tier athletic facilities, and the nation's 10th-best recruiting class, there is plenty of potential here.
The downside is that, at least in the next year, it wouldn't be surprising to see Oklahoma suffer a slight drop-off from the success of years past. Without a star quarterback in town, maintaining elite offensive production in the high-scoring Big XII could become a challenge. New offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby was a great hire by Venables, but there's no way he could ever carry the 'quarterback whisperer' cache of Riley.
These next three years will be crucial for the Sooners, more than their initial seasons in the SEC. A solid foundation of recruits, as well as a good mix of offensive and defensive talent, will prevent the team from being too one-dimensional, a criticism even of Riley's high-scoring rosters. Maintaining talent at the game's most important position will be determined by Venables' ability to convince blue-chip quarterback prospects that the school, and not Riley, was most responsible for the development of players such as Williams, Baker Mayfield, and Kyler Murray. That's a tough ask for a man who has never had to recruit for the position before.
Failure by Venables and his staff to properly maintain Oklahoma's status as a national powerhouse could leave the program in dire straits, reminiscent of what USC has been for the past decade. On the other hand, a successful 'retooling' would leave OU poised to become an SEC contender, raising its profile even further.
In other words, for Oklahoma, the future is now.