Lincoln Riley Is a Virtual Lock to Succeed at USC

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterNovember 29, 2021

NORMAN, OK - OCTOBER 30:  Head coach Lincoln Riley of the Oklahoma Sooners greets his players before a game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on October 30, 2021 in Norman, Oklahoma.  Oklahoma won 52-21.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

The announcement was so jarring and unexpected, it didn't feel real. It couldn't be. But it took only a few hours after Lincoln Riley was officially named the next head coach at USC—leaving Oklahoma after five wildly successful years—for the potential to start to take shape. 

One after the next, the Sooners' recruiting class came undone with a slew of decommitments. Given what Riley meant to that offense and that school, perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised.  

Five-star quarterback Malachi Nelson, the No. 2 football player in the country according to 247Sports, quickly decommitted. Nelson stars at Los Alamitos High School, a short drive from the USC campus. That last part feels important. 

Brandon Inniss, the No. 2 wide receiver in the 2023 class, also decommitted. As did running back Treyaun Webb, one of the best players at his position. And linebacker Kobie McKinzie. And others.

"One of the things that attracted me most to OU, other than the rich history and amazing fans, was the stability in the coaching staff and their ability to develop the QB position," Nelson wrote.

That, more than anything, is why Riley has a chance to succeed in his new football home. It's why USC, a program that has been seemingly lost at sea after such a dominant run, should be incredibly optimistic about a potential revival.

Sure, the pressure will be enormous. Given how unprecedented this moment feels, anything less than massive, sustained success will be deemed a failure.  

Winning won't be good enough. USC must win at the level it has once before. 

It must win the Pac-12, something it has done just once since 2008.

It must make the College Football Playoff, something it has never done.

And it must win playoff games—the one achievement that has eluded Riley in recent years.

Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

USC has the infrastructure to accomplish all those goals. It makes the recent stretch of lackluster seasons that much more perplexing. The facilities are excellent. The history is superb. The location and brand loyalty, despite the recent run, still mean something to multiple generations. 

Everything is still in place for the Trojans to be a dominant force on a national level; they simply needed the right person to do it. Riley is that right person. 

There's a simple reality to all of this. Winning football games at the expected level is anything but simple. But the path to get there is clearly defined. 

Kirby Smart knows what it takes. The head coach of the nation's best football team has assembled a slew of incredible recruiting classes since arriving in Athens. Weeks ago, when asked about the importance of recruiting, Georgia's head coach didn't cite his dazzling philosophies or a secret sauce that helped trigger success.  

"There's no coach out there that you can out-coach recruiting," Smart said. "No coaching is going to out-coach players. Anybody will tell you our defense is good because we have good players."

Imagine if Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, currently the favorite to win the Heisman, was handing the ball off to superstar Texas running back Bijan Robinson. That could've been USC's reality this past season and the one to follow. 

Young, who grew up in California, fell in love with the school at a young age. Robinson, who nearly committed to the Trojans, loved watching Reggie Bush dazzle as a child. He had been intrigued by the Trojans ever since. 

This pair, two of the best stars in the sport, are just the latest in a growing trend of players to stray from USC because of the program's inconsistencies. In particular, the Trojans' inability to dominate recruiting in the state of California in recent years is most troubling.

In the 2020 recruiting cycle, USC landed only two of 247Sports' top 40 players in the state of California. That is not a recipe for sustained success. Young and D.J. Uiagalelei, 5-star California QBs in the class, both left the state to begin their football careers elsewhere.

That changes now. It doesn't matter that Riley doesn't have ties to high school coaches around the state. He will. 

His reputation, especially on offense, should make that seamless. He's coached two Heisman-winning quarterbacks. He's sent a wealth of skill talent to the NFL. In a short period of time, he's made an impact that will be too attractive for hungry, gifted high schoolers to turn down.

NORMAN, OK - OCTOBER 16:  Head coach Lincoln Riley of the Oklahoma Sooners congratulates quarterback Caleb Williams #13 after a touchdown against the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs in the fourth quarter at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Oklahoma's recruiting was largely excellent. At USC, if things go as they should, Riley has a chance to inject the program with an abundance of talent quickly.

He doesn't have to sell the opportunity and what his arrival means. That should sell itself just fine. Around California high schools this week and beyond, a movement will begin. And a splash this large will likely be felt well outside the state. 

It doesn't hurt that Riley will inherit QB Jaxson Dart, a true freshman this season and a former 4-star recruit who has shown promise early on.

Dart committed to USC through one of its most turbulent times. Outside of Riley, who likely just secured one of the largest contracts a coach in the sport has ever been gifted, Dart might benefit more than anyone. 

Having a young, gifted quarterback already on the roster is a wonderful perk for Riley, who will now look to add pieces around the player. And given new transfer rules and a suddenly robust transfer portal filled with new options, the Trojans will likely get plenty of looks from college athletes in search of change. 

For Jim Harbaugh, who felt like the perfect hire for Michigan at the moment, it took seven years for a true breakthrough to occur. For Scott Frost, that breakthrough might never happen at Nebraska. We'll know soon enough. And for Steve Sarkisian, who started the year with such promise at Texas, we saw how quickly things can go sideways.  

There are no slam dunks when it comes to hiring a football coach. The only guarantee is the money guaranteed in the contract Riley just inked, which is likely significant.

This is, however, the closest thing we've seen to a sure thing in some time. And not just because Riley is taking his brilliant offensive mind to Los Angeles. That will certainly help. 

But because the talent and the pieces necessary for USC to win at the level it once normalized are destined to follow.


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