The college football landscape needed a major shakeup, the sport became too regional with the past three national champions coming from the Southeastern Conference and it did not help that some of the top brands in the sport — particularly on the West Coast — have been mediocre.
The coaching carousel led to blue-blood schools like Miami, Oklahoma, LSU, and Notre Dame getting new coaches.
However, the University of Southern California (USC) had the biggest splash by hiring quarterback guru Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma, where he helped produce two Heisman winners (Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray) and Eagles starting QB Jalen Hurts, who spent his senior season in Norman.
Riley has an opportunity to revive West Coast football at a blue blood that has the resources to scare Alabama and the almighty SEC.
USC football reached rock bottom under former head coach Clay Helton. Despite a respectable 46-24 record, their recruiting classes lacked top lineman, players were not developing, and they couldn’t keep homegrown talent in the state, all a recipe for inconsistency and eventual disaster. Or at the very least a fall from relevance.
Throughout his tenure, Helton only won 10 or more games twice, in 2016 when USC went 10-3, and then in 2017 when the Trojans went 11-3. USC fell off after that, going a disappointing 5-7 in 2018 and 14-7 with him at the helm from 2019 onward.
California kids like Heisman winner Bryce Young and highly touted Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei chose to leave the state and go to a Southern region. Helton’s era led to the softest football seen in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Coaching Search: Hunting Star Power
After a humiliating 2021 season, USC’s athletics director Mike Bohn and chief of staff Brandon Sosna took it upon themselves to conduct a coaching search that would entice not just any coach, but a top-tier coach to restore the greatness of USC football.
USC’s aggressive search ended with the shocking hiring of one of the top head coaches in the country in Lincoln Riley, who’s also considered a top-five offensive mind. Riley’s arrival in Los Angeles sent a message that USC is going to put forth the effort and resources to be one of the best football programs in the country.
Reports say Riley will make $7.6 million annually through the 31st of January 2026.
In due time, USC will be in conversations for national championships, but what is a successful first season for Lincoln Riley?
After USC’s first spring practice Riley fielded questions from the media and discussed first-year expectations.
“For us it’s about just getting as good as we can right now,” Riley said. “We understand that’s a journey, but I will say this: I’m not gonna take any goal off the table. I said it Day One, that’s not why we came here, so we expect to compete for [and] win championships every single year.”
A national championship would be a surprise Year One, but after flipping a few players on national signing day and attacking the transfer portal, the USC roster seems to be in a better position to compete.
The biggest boost was signing the No. 1 transfer available, former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams. As a true freshman Williams took over as starting quarterback for struggling preseason Heisman favorite Spencer Rattler. Williams came in and immediately thrived under Riley’s system, displaying explosive dual-threat and big play capabilities.
There was little doubt that Williams would hop in the portal and follow his head coach to USC. Williams’ dad was adamant about staying with the coach that gave his son the best chance to take his game to the next level.
For USC to not only land a quarterback, but also Oklahoma receiver Mario Williams from the portal, puts the passing game chemistry ahead of schedule. How far USC goes in its first year under Riley will largely on depend on Caleb’s arm. The main doubts concern the strength of an offensive line that will determine USC’s ability to run the ball effectively.
With the roster vastly improved, USC should be competing for the Pac-12 championship. Brad Crawford ranked USC’s 2022 schedule as the fourth-most favorable schedule for contenders.
Before their bye week USC has two tough road matchups. The first is traveling to Reser Stadium to take on the physical Oregon State Beavers, who ran for over 300 yards on the Trojans in a blowout victory in 2021.
Then, the week before their bye, the Trojans are traveling to Salt Lake City to take on the reigning Pac-12 champions, the Utah Utes, a team that is physical and well-coached. These two matchups are gut-check games to see if USC has changed its mentality after adding what they feel is some much-needed toughness to the defensive front seven.
Closing out the Trojans’ regular season schedule is about pride. The last month of the season USC does not leave Los Angeles, and their last two games are against in-state rival UCLA Bruins and Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Everyone knows the historic significance of these rivalries, and if the Trojans sweep these games, they will end their regular season on a high note.
The Pac-12 Championship is scheduled for December 2. USC should be representing the South division. The key will be continuing to focus on the details, develop their running game and play physical defense.
In life there are usually short- and long-term goals. The Trojans are trying to rebuild a national brand and to do so the first couple years is about establishing a winning culture.
Long term, the Lincoln Riley era at USC could be remembered for winning national championships, kind of like the Pete Carroll multiple national championship era — but without the drama.