Lincoln Riley should start Caleb Williams, but keeping Spencer Rattler engaged is key for Oklahoma
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley will not publicly name a starting quarterback for Saturday’s game against TCU.
“Don’t plan on naming a starting quarterback here this week,” Riley said at his press conference Tuesday. “We’ll see how the week plays out, and see where we are when we get to Saturday. … We’ll see you Saturday at 6:30 p.m.”
The speculative guess is easy. Freshman Caleb Williams, who led the comeback against Texas last week in the Red River Showdown, likely will take over as the starter for preseason Heisman Trophy favorite Spencer Rattler in one of the more-stunning storylines of the 2021 season.
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Is it really that stunning, though? We have seen this before.
On Jan. 8, 2018, Alabama coach Nick Saban replaced Jalen Hurts with freshman Tua Tagovailoa in the CFP championship game. The Crimson Tide won 26-23 on Tagovailoa’s now-legendary game-winning TD pass on second-and-26.
The following season, Dabo Swinney replaced Kelly Bryant, who led the Tigers to the CFP the previous season, with freshman Trevor Lawrence after four games. Bryant transferred to Missouri during the season, and Lawrence led a national championship run.
Riley can learn from those two situations to keep the Sooners on the same-old CFP path in an effort to win the program’s first national championship since 2000. The short-term outlook is Riley has to make a decision before Saturday’s prime-time matchup against the Horned Frogs, where the focus will be on that immediate choice.
Williams should be that choice. The Sooners’ offense unleashed its big-play potential with Williams to rally from a 28-7 deficit against Texas. Running back Kennedy Brooks and receiver Marvin Mims had their best games of the season.
Remember, once Saban put Tagovailoa in, that was it. Tagovailoa won the starting job the following season, but Hurts was a role player in the offense throughout the year.
MORE: Caleb Williams changed the Red River Showdown, and possibly the CFB season
So, what about Rattler? Riley said the sophomore quarterback was given the day off Monday before returning to practice.
“Considering the circumstances he’s doing well,” Riley said. “It’s not easy for a young guy. This guy gets painted a different way publicly than what he really is.”
Rattler was considered the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy and the potential No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. He earned NIL deals, too, and like Hurts he did not lose as the starting quarterback in the season he was replaced. It’s just that Oklahoma had several one-score games against FBS competition, and Williams was the right spark at the right time.
Riley reiterated that Rattler won the competition in fall camp, but the dynamics have changed.
So will Rattler immediately transfer like Bryant did? Riley addressed that question, too, knowing that the transfer portal is more active than it was in 2018.
“There are never any guarantees, but I would fully expect to have both of those guys the entire season,” Riley said. “Both those guys are pretty committed to this football team.”
Rattler’s father echoed those thoughts to the OUDaily on Wednesday , saying the family will make a decsion on his future after Oklahoma’s season.
The best-case scenario? Rattler maintains a role, even if he is the backup, for the remainder of the season. After all, he did re-enter the game and hit the game-tying two-point conversion against Texas last week.
Look back at those situations at Alabama and Clemson to see the value of a backup quarterback. Hurts replaced an injured Tagovailoa and led a 35-28 comeback victory against Georgia in the 2018 SEC championship game. Lawrence was knocked out with a concussion in the first game after Bryant transferred, and Chase Brice played the hero in a 27-23 comeback against Syracuse on Sept. 29, 2018. Those were key moments in that season, which ended with Clemson beating Alabama in the CFP championship game.
Oklahoma has yet to reach the championship game despite four playoff appearances. They’ve had the right quarterback each time, too, with a pair of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray along with Hurts, who transferred from Alabama after the 2018 season.
That’s another best-case scenario for Riley. That the quarterback situation resolves after the season. Remember, the Sooners have won 14 consecutive games.
“The sky is not quite falling,” Riley said. “We keep it in perspective.”
RIley can manage this situation, even with the transfer portal and NIL, in this CFP race. Penn State lost starting quarterback Sean Clifford last week, and the dropoff at QB was catastrophic in a 23-20 loss to Iowa. Oklahoma still has half a season left in the Big 12, where the Sooners are gunning for a seventh straight conference championship.
“This has typically been the time for us when we surge and play some of our best ball,” Riley said. “That’s absolutely our intent right now.”
To do that, Riley must start Willliams and see where it goes. He could emerge as a Heisman Trophy-candidate and the difference-maker for a program that has been itching to show that to its future SEC peers on the CFP stage. But Rattler must stay engaged and involved, whether it’s in certain packages for each game or in a backup role, for this to work out.
That is the win-win Riley must hope for. Maybe that plan leads the Sooners to an elusive national championship.
“For me, I feel like I have two really good players,” Riley said. “I don’t see it as a problem or an issue. You gotta choose between two great options, and that’s a good position to be in. I know both of those kids will respond no matter what position they are in.”
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