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Can Lincoln Riley Live Up to the Hype at USC?

Ryan Phillips
USC Introduce Lincoln Riley
USC Introduce Lincoln Riley / Kevork Djansezian/GettyImages
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Lincoln Riley's move from Oklahoma to USC was the most shocking moment of college football's offseason. The 38-year-old landed an enormous contract to head to LA but brought enormous expectations with him. Can he actually live up to that hype?

The buzz surrounding Riley's jump to USC was understandable. In five years at Oklahoma he won four Big 12 titles and went to the College Football Playoff three times. His 55-10 record speaks for itself. He also tutored two quarterbacks who won the Heisman Trophy and were selected No. 1 overall in the NFL draft. He's the best young coach in the game.

Riley didn't just bring himself and much of his staff to USC, he also brought a wave of transfers. The Trojans landed 13, including star quarterback Caleb Williams, game-breaking receiver Mario Williams and the Pac-12's top returning running back in Travis Dye. It is a star-studded group that will certainly help Riley turn things around quickly.

USC has also been crushing it on the recruiting trail since Riley arrived. While the 2022 class currently ranks 65th nationally, the new staff only opted to take eight players so far. That includes four top-100 players in five-star Domani Jackson, game-breaking running back Raleek Brown, top safety Zion Branch and receiver C.J. Williams. The Trojans are also favorites to land five-star left tackle Josh Connerly.

So far in the 2023 class, USC has landed three five-star players in quarterback Malachi Nelson and receivers Zachariah Branch and Makai Lemon. All three players rank in the top 26. And the Trojans lead for a number of other top prospects. Riley has made USC a cool spot to commit again. No small feat after the final few years of Clay Helton's tenure.

That influx of talent has observers expecting great things from the Trojans in 2022. They certainly have the talent -- and the quarterback -- to win the Pac-12 and potentially make a run at the College Football Playoff. But is that realistic for a coach attempting to completely overhaul the culture of a storied program? Probably not.

With Williams at quarterback, Dye in the backfield and a plethora of talented receivers, Riley should be able to create an explosive offense at USC. During the 2021 season, Riley's Oklahoma team averaged 36.0 points per game (12th nationally), 437.2 yards per game (26th nationally) and 0.539 points per play (sixth nationally). The Sooners' red zone scoring percentage (96.23) was the best in the nation, while they averaged 5.3 yards per rush (ninth nationally) and 8.4 yards per pass (20th nationally). And that was considered a down year for the program.

The defense will be in wait-and-see mode, as defensive coordinator Alex Grinch molds a ton of talent to his system. Under Grinch, the Sooners gave up 408.6 yards per game in 2021, which ranked 82nd in the country. They also ranked 70th in points allowed per game (27.9). So we'll see if that's a patter or just what happens in the all-offense, no-defense Big 12.

It certainly looks like Riley has the Trojans humming and headed in the right direction, but with a completely new staff, a number of holdover players and a massive culture change, there will be bumps in the road. On paper, winning the Pac-12 South shouldn't be difficult in 2022, with only Utah posing much of a threat. And winning the Pac-12 should come down to a battle with Oregon. If Caleb Williams stays healthy, USC should be in great shape. But there are always unforeseen bumps in the road for new coaches.

Riley has reawoken USC and the Trojans look like a burgeoning power once again. He has seamlessly integrated himself into Southern California and has the program regaining its swagger again. In time, USC should be competing for national titles under their young coach's watch. Hoping for that in Year 1 might be too much to ask for, but if anyone can do it, Lincoln Riley can.

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