In 2018 the two major football programs in the state of Oklahoma are both going to have to replace legends. Mason Rudolph took over as OSU’s QB at the end of 2014 and then held the role for the next three years while leading the program to an impressive if slightly disappointing run of 10-win seasons. Baker Mayfield spent 2014 redshirting at Oklahoma before taking over for a three year run in which the Sooners went 25-2 in Big 12 play with three conference titles and two playoff appearances.
Someone in the Big 12 always seems to have a brilliant QB at the helm and the programs that tend to stay at the top are the same ones that regularly have good QBs. Texas’ failure to do much of anything this decade runs parallel to the fact that they’ve been breaking in a new hope at QB virtually every season without ever seeing that player lead them to the promised land.
But while the league is dominated by great QBs every year, how easy is it to replace one and keep chugging along? When considering the challenge facing OSU and OU this season in moving on from the Rudolph/Mayfield eras I decided to look back and see what tends to happen in the Big 12 when a program loses a successful, multi-year starter.
The Big 12’s history of QB replacement
Since the Big 12’s inception in 1998, I counted 14 occasions in which a Big 12 team had to replace a multi-year starter who’d won 10 games in at least one season. In those 14 occasions, the average difference the next year was to win 2.9 fewer games. So in other words, a team led by a veteran QB in his final season that went 10-3 was going 7-6 the following year, 11-2 meant 8-4, so on and so forth.
There was only one occurrence in which the team got better after the successful, multi-year starter moved on, the 2013 Oklahoma Sooners.
That team was replacing Landry Jones, who still holds many of Oklahoma’s career stat records by virtue of his longevity as a four-year starter and also the degree to which OU had came to depend on him throwing the football in some of those years. They replaced him with a combination of Blake Bell and Trevor Knight and went 11-2 the year after going 10-3.
The 2013 team wasn’t particularly strong. They were blown out by the B12 champion Baylor Bears 41-12, lost the RRS to a Texas team that was about to fire Mack Brown, and had their resume bolstered by a win over a 9-4 Notre Dame on the road and then their triumphant shellacking of a disinterested Alabama team in the Sugar Bowl. Trevor Knight won the job with that performance and led the Sooners to an 8-5 season in 2014 that cost OC Josh Heupel his job and resulted in the ascendance of Baker Mayfield and Lincoln Riley.
There was one occurrence in which the team got neither worse nor better (in terms of win-loss record at least) after losing their multi-year starter, the 2003 Oklahoma Sooners.
That team was replacing Nate Hybl after an 11-2 and 12-2 season in which he’d actually battled to keep the job against his successor Jason White, only to win the job by default when White blew out his knees (one ACL in each season). 2003 featured a White with knee braces on both knees and his once great mobility gone, but a great familiarity with the offense and star receiver Mark Clayton. In some sense they weren’t even replacing their starter, they were replacing his back-up. The 2003 Sooners went 12-2 with their defeats coming in the B12 title game to Kansas State (a 35-7 drubbing) and then in the title against Nick Saban’s LSU Tigers (21-14).
Both the 2003 and 2013 Oklahoma Sooners also enjoyed good defensive play with the 03 unit finishing 5th in the nation in points allowed and the 2013 unit ranking 33rd in S&P+ in the nation.
Everyone else got worse.
The 2010 Longhorns were replacing Colt McCoy, Jordan Shipley, and most of their offensive infrastructure that had been combined with a Will Muschamp defense to produce a brilliant two-year run. Admittedly scarred by the trauma of losing McCoy to a freak injury against Alabama and having to hand the keys of a QB-driven offense to a freshman, Mack Brown decided to alter the strategy at Texas to feature the run game as the driving force of the offense. Of course, Texas didn’t have a particularly good OL or RB to realize that vision and completely collapsed leading to major staff turnover and eventually the end of the Mack Brown era.
The 2016 TCU Horned Frogs were replacing Trevone Boykin after a 23-3 run. The 2014 Frogs combined a suddenly explosive offense (thanks to the hires of Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham to install the Air Raid) with a typically good Gary Patterson D. The 2015 Frogs graduated much of their defense and struggled (for them, at least) on defense but still dominated thanks to the return of Boykin and lead receiver Josh Doctson. In 2016 they had neither a top defense nor a dominant QB, despite plugging in A&M transfer Kenny Hill, and went 6-7.
From legend to legend
There were also a few teams that did replace old legends at QB with new legends. One obvious example is the 2006 Texas Longhorns, who were three wins worse (10-3) than the 2005 national championship team while plugging in RS Freshman Colt McCoy. That team still had almost the entire offense in place, including a brilliant OL and two fantastic RBs, but they took a step back while adjusting to life without Vince at the helm. In 2007 they went 10-3 again while turning the offense over to star RB Jamaal Charles running behind an overhauled OL. In 2008 they stood to get worse due to Charles and freak TE Jermichael Finley both leaving for the NFL but instead finally retooled the offense around Colt McCoy and veteran wideouts Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby. That, and Will Muschamp’s defense, led to a 25-2 run, a B12 championship, and two BCS appearances including the national title game defeat to Alabama.
It took three years until Colt had reached the point as a player where he was ready to drive the offense rather than to simply manage the existing infrastructure.
Another example was when Kansas State replaced two-year starter Jonathan Beasley, who’d gone 22-4, with a young QB named Ell Roberson in 2001. Roberson actually had to win the job during the season and led a 6-6 effort before taking over in 2002 and leading a two-year run where the Wildcats went 22-6.
A potential outlier to all of this was the 2015 Baylor Bears season, the first after replacing Bryce Petty who’d gone 22-4 over the previous two seasons while winning back-to-back Big 12 titles. The 2015 Baylor season took a relatively small step back (other than the scandals that brought everything down) going 10-3 the year after going 11-2. What’s more, Baylor’s losses all came after Petty’s successor Seth Russell was injured and one of them came after Russell’s back-up Jarret Stidham was also injured and then HIS back-up was injured. That team almost certainly maintains the record they had under Petty if either Russell or Stidham remains healthy.
Art Briles never had too much trouble producing top producing QBs with his spread-option offense, indeed raising the question of how much of Baylor’s success was really due to any particular ability on the part of their signal-callers.
Takeaways for the 2018 season in Oklahoma
The stark lesson of looking back at previous teams is that squads usually took a step back even when replacing one great player with another. The caliber of player that could win big and carry a team to great heights also tended to be the kind of guy that supplied much of the infrastructure for the team.
Retooling the team for a new starter was often fairly difficult and the departing QBs often left with a class of teammates that had also been key contributors.
That’s certainly the case in Stillwater where the offense has been mostly keyed by Rudolph throwing to fellow senior James Washington, who was immediately reunited with him in Pittsburgh. The obvious direction in OSU seems to be to put greater emphasis on the run game which returns three veterans on the interior of the OL, FB Britton Abbott, and star RB Justice Hill. Former walk-on Taylor Cornelius, a 6-6 RS Senior is currently positioned to win the job but grad transfer Dru Brown of Hawaii will join the team this summer and restart the competition.
The OSU system is built around balance between the run and pass, tempo, and then a QB that can distribute the ball down the field when the defensive coverage dictates that’s where the offense is at advantage. Whether they can do that at Rudolph’s level without either the veteran QB or his top target seems obvious, it’s just a matter of degree in the decline. The best parallel is probably the 2009 Missouri Tigers who replaced Chase Daniel (and his top targets) with Blaine Gabbert and Danario Alexander and slipped to 8-5.
Oklahoma has a much more intricate system that Riley built around Baker Mayfield. It’s been a run centric approach that has used a unique FB/TE approach (an H-back to help block, then a flex TE in lieu of a slot WR, then speedy slots playing off the flex TE) to make personnel matchups tough on defenses. They’ve gotten a lot of mileage the last few years running different RPO actions and misdirection plays to attack the ways that teams tend to play them and Mayfield was a maestro at understanding and executing it all.
The supporting cast for 2018 figures to be weaker than in 2017 but still strong and still spearheaded by a good run game. The challenge is whether Kyler Murray, who’s also playing baseball, will be ready to wield the hammer and focus his powers so to speak. Simply to pick up Mjolnir may prove difficult to say nothing of moving on to Stormbreaker.
The best parallel to the OU situation is probably the 2006 Texas Longhorns, who remained effective on offense with a new QB learning to wield something that had been mastered by a legend. The major difference of course is that the 2006 Texas defense was still good and the 2018 Oklahoma defense is hoping to improve enough that they might be called “good.” So here even a marginal decline in offensive performance might result in a steeper decline than expected, perhaps like the 2002 Nebraska Cornhuskers that replaced Eric Crouch with the similarly effective Jamaal Lord (1400 rushing yards) but endured a number of marginal declines and a big decline on defense that crushed them.
History at least tells us that even at the big time programs that regularly enjoy good QB play, plugging in new heroes the year after losing a star tends to be accompanied with fresh growing pains. If any of the other teams in the Big 12 can field a multi-year starting QB that in turn becomes hard to replace, there could be a vacuum to fill at the top.