When a team hires a new coach, the storyline usually revolves around how the school chose that coach from all available candidates. In the case of USC hiring Lincoln Riley, the interesting narrative is how Riley chose USC. Riley spent five years as the head coach of an indisputable blue blood in Oklahoma, never lost more than two games in a season, qualified for three CFPs, and developed two Heisman-winning QBs. Every team in the country wanted Riley, so much so that most assumed that if he left OU, it would be to coach an NFL team.
Meanwhile, most Pac-12 fans spent the majority of the last decade joking that the conference would be in trouble if USC ever cleaned up its act and fired Clay Helton. We did not know how right we were. Not only does Riley’s hiring elevate USC from a talented mess to an ascending juggernaut, it was ultimately part of the program’s reinvention and departure to the Big 10. There is no way to know for sure how much Riley knew about USC’s plan to exit when he took the job. The simplest answer is that Riley probably knew USC was planning to go to the Big 10 and it probably made the job more appealing to him. We can debate about different CFP models and likely USC team strengths, but USC football will have more revenue as a Big 10 member, which is ultimately beneficial to the head coach.
The fact that 2025 USC is a more appealing job than 2022 USC does not explain why Riley chose 2022 USC over 2022 Oklahoma. The Sooners have dominated the Big 12 during Riley’s tenure and proven there is a clear path to CFP bids. Of course, OU also has a pending move to the SEC on the horizon, so a move to a super conference would not be a differentiating factor. Maybe the answer is as simple as Riley’s preference for living in Los Angeles over Norman, which would just prove that he’s an actual human being. It’s also possible that he looks back over the last 25 years and the direction of college football generally and sees a higher likelihood for USC to get to the mega-power level of Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, and Ohio State. He may believe he has maxed out the potential to recruit and develop the program at Oklahoma and still bumped up against a glass ceiling a micro-level below those behemoths. It’s the finest of fine margins, but look at Riley’s three CFP semifinal losses- close games against Georgia and Alabama, then a thumping by Joe Burrow’s magical LSU squad. It seems plausible that Riley looked at the burgeoning impact of NIL, the donor base, and the local draw for each program and saw USC as a better bet to get him over that hump.
Riley is one of the most successful coaches in the country, but he is not perfect. Riley is an offensive guru whose defenses have lagged. No one expects him to personally oversee a powerhouse defense, but he is responsible for hiring someone whose defense can keep up with what he’s doing offensively. Even after Riley fired Mike Stoops for under-delivering on the defensive side, Alex Grinch was only able to get OU’s defense up to 58th nationally in 2021 in SP+. Grinch follows Riley to LA and still has to prove their partnership can work on both sides of the ball.
One of my close friends is an OU grad and football superfan. I was constantly shocked how lukewarm- sometimes even hostile- he and other OU fans were toward Riley. Despite Riley’s results on the field and the recruiting trail, they saw Riley as a clearly inferior coach to Bob Stoops, even though Stoops had seasons much worse than the worst of what we have seen from Riley. The knock on Riley was a sub-par ability to adapt within games when things did not go well. While Riley built a marvelous offensive system, recruited extremely well, and developed players to their maximum potential in his system, it’s fair to note that Riley had a trend of struggling with significantly less talented opponents with great coaches. OU barely escaped Army with an OT win in 2018. They lost to Kansas State in 2019 and 2020, and also lost to Iowa State in 2017 and 2020. Even when Riley has beaten Matt Campbell’s Cyclones, the games have been closer than the talent would suggest they should have been. To that end, it’s foreseeable that USC could enter a game against a team like Utah with more talent, but lose to a superior game plan from Kyle Whittingham.
In the big picture, these criticisms are nitpicky. Riley is a great coach with an outstanding track record. With that said, the hype for 2022 USC is absolutely out of control. The coaches voted them 15th in their preseason poll after a disastrous 4-8 season that cost Clay Helton his job after only two games. They recently had the fifth best betting odds to win the National Title. The 2021 Trojans didn’t win a game against an opponent with a winning record, finished a disastrous 82nd in SP+ (outside the top 100 on defense), and even cratered on the recruiting trail (11th in the Pac-12).
Projecting USC to rise into the top 25 requires so many unanswered questions to resolve in their favor. Was the 2021 on-field performance solely attributable to the coaching change and dysfunction? Will the top-rated transfer class immediately coalesce in a new system? Is Caleb Williams an immediate, big upgrade over Kedon Slovis and Jaxson Dart? Will an abysmal offensive line turn around its performance with only one new addition? Is Grinch the right person to turn a wretched defense into an above-average one immediately? It’s not just that the answers to these questions have to be “yes,” it’s that they have to be emphatic yesses across the board for USC to reach the heights that the coaches and bettors are projecting for them. Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t see that sort of turnaround so quickly.
Even if it doesn’t happen in his first year, I believe in Riley’s ability to get USC back into the range of a perennial top-10, CFP contender. If the offensive line and overall defense show meaningful progress in 2022, I could see USC entering as the Pac favorite in 2023. Riley’s goal has to be to get the program level with Ohio State by the time they leave for the Big 10 in three years. I am confident that he will be able to get USC to a level similar to where Oklahoma has been for the last five years. Can he exceed that level and get USC to the level where they were under Pete Carroll? I suspect that’s the bar against which Riley will measure himself, and the challenge is precisely why he chose USC as his destination.