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OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops talks with the media about the upcoming season, Sunday, July 22, 2018, at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. 

Second-year Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley rolled his eyes.

“I knew that was coming,” he chuckled.

The question was whether Oklahoma could ever have a top-five defense, despite playing in the Big 12. Yet even if Riley hadn't offered a now-famous quote about Georgia's defense, the inquiry still would have fit Sunday's media day press conference.

The man that followed Riley, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, has been on the spot for answers as nearly everyone seems to agree that OU's recent defensive performance is unacceptable.

Stoops' group ranked 67th in total defense and 68th in scoring defense last year. The year before, the Sooners were 82nd and 68th respectively. That's tough to swallow.

“We need to change,” junior linebacker Caleb Kelly said. “We've been in the 60s and 80s since I've been here. It's time to be an Oklahoma defense. That's what we used to be known for here, and that's what we really are.”

The numbers may never look great, and the offense is partially responsible. Playing fast means more possessions, and more possessions leads to more yards and points. If both offenses are playing fast then it's even more difficult.

Why it's harder to play in a league built with powerful offenses, the case has been made many times, often by Stoops while shrugging his shoulders.

“Statistics, in certain situations, are drastically different because of who you play,” he said Sunday. “There are a lot of variables that go into playing good defense. Being a top 15 or top 20 defense might be more realistic in our league.”

Both coaches stopped short of saying that a top five statistical defense is impossible, just improbable. The numbers back that up.

The total points allowed for an average Big 12 team last season was 368, more than 40 points higher than the average SEC team. However, the average Pac-12 team allowed a total of 371, and Washington touted a top five scoring defense.

The Huskies are just an example, an imperfect one because of many other factors. Those variables help explain the difficulty of determining the real meaning of "top five."

“It’s possible to have a defense as good as anywhere,” Riley said. “There’s no magic league for defenses. Like I’ve said many times, I think it more challenging numbers-wise to have one of the best defenses in our league because of the offenses. But absolutely, you can have a defense that you know is a top five defense.”

Riley points to last year's game at Ohio State, which began in offensive gridlock and ended 31-16 in OU's favor.

“That’s kind of what we envision,” he said. “We’ve got to do it more consistently, but that’s absolutely the goal.”

Still, Riley believes in the defense's potential this fall, so does Stoops, emboldened by strong recruiting classes.

“I think we’ve had good talent, but we haven’t had the talent to be elite on defense, and I think we’re getting back close to that,” Riley said. “I don’t feel like we’re far off there at all.”

But back to Riley's original point, the Sooners could close that gap while not catching others statistically. And one superb season isn't going to curb perception.

“You could win the national championship and people would say, 'Oh well the offense saved us,' but you couldn't have got there without the defense, too,” Kelly said. “We'll always get the backlash, because that's just what has been happening for the past couple of years. But if we're consistently a top five defense, we're not going to get it.”