Lincoln Riley's USC Turnaround Has Been Staggering

Ryan Phillips
USC Introduce Lincoln Riley
USC Introduce Lincoln Riley / Kevork Djansezian/GettyImages
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A year ago yesterday, Lincoln Riley had his introductory press conference as the new head coach at USC. That came one day after he shocked the college football world by leaving Oklahoma to take over a team in the midst of a 4-8 season. The Trojans now find themselves in the top four of the penultimate College Football Playoff rankings. The turnaround Riley pulled off at USC has been nothing short of remarkable.

In Year 1 of his tenure, the 39-year-old head coach led the Trojans to an 11-1 record. USC beat both of its rivals -- UCLA in a thriller and Notre Dame in a bruising beatdown. The Trojans' only loss came by one point on the road at Utah. They own the best record in the Pac-12 and have a chance to avenge that lone defeat on Friday in the conference title game. Riley is also on the precipice of having his third Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, as brilliant sophomore Caleb Williams has the award all but locked up.

When Riley took over, the consensus among college football experts I spoke with was that it would take him several years to build a contender at USC. The massive roster gaps and lack of depth left by the previous coaching staff would be too much to overcome. The defensive front, in particular, was a mess outside of star end Tuli Tuipulotu. One text I received from a staff member at a Big 12 school claimed the Trojans might sneak into the Pac-12 title game in Year 1, but that would largely be due to the conference being incredibly weak. Turns out, the Pac-12 was far better than expected. USC made the championship game anyway.

The moment he stepped on campus, Riley set about completely remaking USC from top to bottom. He worked quickly to flip several key recruits, including his quarterback of the future, five-star 2023 prospect Malachi Nelson. At the same time, he went to work hitting the transfer portal hard, importing 20 new players while a number of scholarship players from the 2021 squad departed.

Caleb Williams topped the list, but receivers Jordan Addison and Mario Williams and running back Travis Dye all got significant coverage upon their commitments. But other, under-the-radar guys have been vitally important to this team's success. Cornerback Mekhi Blackmon, linebackers Eric Gentry and Shane Lee, safety Bryson Shaw, receiver Brenden Rice, offensive tackle Bobby Haskins, running back Austin Jones and defensive linemen Solomon Byrd and Tyrone Taleni have all come up big for the Trojans at various points of the season. Riley and his staff imported guys, developed them and deployed them effectively. In the process, they set a precedent for how to rebuild a roster.

Don't expect Riley to rely as heavily on the portal in the future, but he used it to not only fill out the roster but also to change the culture in the program. Dye, Williams and Lee became leaders instantly. All three came from successful programs -- Oregon, Oklahoma and Alabama, respectively -- and helped Riley's staff rapidly change the direction of the program.

That massive program change won't just impact this season, but has set the Trojans up for long-term success. Recruiting appears poised to return to the elite levels of the Pete Carroll days. The LA Coliseum is packed with an electric atmosphere again and USC is creating real national buzz. Even if the Trojans lose the Pac-12 title game and fall out of playoff contention, the season will still have been wildly impressive. Riley has set USC up to be a long-term powerhouse. The brand means something again. And it somehow only took one calendar year to do so.

Lincoln Riley has taken the USC back to national relevance years faster than expected. And he's just getting started.

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