Lincoln Riley is a big hire. USC did what almost nobody in college football thought it could do in getting him. Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn should take a bow for sobering up the Oklahoma football fanbase and making that Sooners’ job look like a mid-major stepping stone.
That said — pump the brakes.
Call off the parade.
Halt the coronation ceremony.
Riley to USC is great for the conference, will open the checkbooks of Trojan donors, and throws up a warning flare for the rest of the Pac-12 Conference. But I’m not sold that Riley is going to waltz into the conference, win titles immediately and strike fear in the hearts of the perennial contenders. I’m not even that certain that every corner of Oklahoma’s unhinged fan base is disappointed about any of this.
I understand why Riley and his staff coveted the USC job. It’s a great gig. They’ll live in Manhattan Beach instead of Norman, Oklahoma. They’ll compete for College Football Playoff berths against Utah/Oregon instead of Alabama/Georgia. I also get why USC fans are performing cartwheels. Riley has three playoff appearances in the last four seasons, and in the same span USC has gone 22-20. But when I called around the conference after the news broke I didn’t find knocking knees or shuddering hearts.
“Way off track with how easy they think the turn around there will be,” said one coach. “USC is dealing with this masterfully though. They are making every recruit think USC is a destination now because they hired Casey at the Bat.”
Another longtime coach offered, “USC needs an unbelievable culture change and makeover. Lots of work. Good coach, but not sure Lincoln Riley is the right fit. I’m not jumping up and down about that hire. Luke Fickell is what they needed.”
A few heralded Southern California recruits (QB Malachi Nelson, WR Makai Lemon and RB Raleek Brown) are all solid candidates to flip their commitments from Oklahoma to USC. Riley will bring some talent. But as former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz reminded me on Monday, college football titles are won by moving piles.
Everyone talks Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart when they talk Pete Carroll-era at USC, but the Trojans had 12 players on the offensive and defensive lines from those teams picked in the NFL Draft. It was guys like Jacob Rogers, Mike Patterson, Winston Justice, Shaun Cody and Sedrick Ellis who won at the point of attack.
“Lincoln Riley is going to recruit all the skill guys but if you can’t win in the trenches none of that matters,” said Schwartz, who played his college ball in Eugene. “There’s not a lot of talent in the offensive and defensive lines in that footprint, and right now Oregon has that market cornered. Lincoln Riley is going to have to beat Mario Cristobal for those guys and I don’t think that’s an easy sell because Cristobal has a proven record of developing and putting guys in the NFL.”
Will blue-chip offensive line recruits immediately pick Riley over Mario Cristobal?
That’s a huge ask.
Another factor for those prematurely anointing USC as the Pac-12 champion: Washington. The Huskies hired Kalen DeBoer on Monday, making Riley’s meteoric launch a little more turbulent and competitive. I’m not convinced that the culture issues that have plagued USC’s campus and infected the football program can be solved in a matter of months, either.
Again, really flashy hire. Encouraging development for the Pac-12, who finally stole a high-profile head coach. But anyone anointing USC as the conference champion in 2022 or even immediate winner in the South Division next season is underestimating the situation. Riley has to unwind the work of Clay Helton, Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin. He’ll need to overcome a campus that has wobbled in more ways than just football. And he’ll have to do it against established competition that has successfully invaded Southern California for recruits.
I think USC will eventually win again. I’m just not sure how big and how soon. I’m pumping the brakes on Lincoln Riley’s coronation ceremony and calling off the parade. Meanwhile, Oregon and Utah will meet on Friday and decide who wins the Pac-12 title. I’ll ask about the Riley hire and look for a sign of fear in their eyes, but I’m not sure I’ll find much.