Lincoln Riley turned USC around quickly, but Utah can prevent Trojans’ coronation in Pac-12 title game
According to Riley, the Trojans are right on schedule. They have been on quite the rocket ride back to national relevance
A year ago, USC played its final home game of the 2021 season, a 35-31 loss to BYU at the famed Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, with few Trojan fans in attendance, amid what turned out to be an awful 4-8 campaign.
“That really has made things no longer a three- or four-year project. It’s turned into a one- or two-year project.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham on how the transfer portal can speed up the recovery of a slumping program
The following day, USC shocked the college football world by hiring coach Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma.
Everybody knew that Riley, who took the reins of the once-proud program, would eventually make a big impact at USC. Few knew it would happen this quickly.
Even before the season began, Riley didn’t try to tamp down the expectations.
“I’m not going to take any goal off the table,” Riley said at the time. “I said it Day 1. That’s not why we came here, so we expect to compete for and win championships every single year.
“I’ll save you that question for the next 10-15 years. That’s going to be the same answer. That’s just who we are as a staff. That’s what we believe in and frankly, that’s what this program should be about. This is USC. The expectation here should be to win championships every single year.”
Well, according to Riley, the Trojans are right on schedule. They have been on quite the rocket ride back to national relevance.
Riley has restored glory to No. 6 USC, evidenced by an 11-1 regular season, an 8-1 Pac-12 record, a shot at a College Football Playoff berth, and an appearance Friday (6 p.m. MST, Fox) against No. 14 Utah in the conference championship game in Las Vegas.
“We’ve got a conference championship game on a short week,” Riley said. “We’re excited to get to Vegas.”
Oh, and by the way, USC boasts the Heisman Trophy frontrunner, quarterback Caleb Williams. And defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu, a Bednarik Award finalist.
While the Utes are making their fourth appearance in the Pac-12 championship game in five years, Riley has plenty of experience preparing teams for conference championship games, in the Big 12, at Oklahoma.
Of course, the Trojans have their sights on not just a Pac-12 title, but a national title.
Heading into this showdown, USC is coming off impressive victories over No. 18 UCLA and No. 15 Notre Dame.
Now, the Trojans take on the Utes, who handed them their only loss of the season back on Oct. 15. Utah quarterback Cam Rising scored a touchdown and two-point conversion in the final minute to lead the Utes to a 43-42 win.
Friday, USC can avenge that bitter setback.
It’s remarkable how much the Trojans have improved since last season and how much the energy and culture around the program has changed.
In last Saturday’s victory over Notre Dame, there were 72,000 fans in attendance, a stark contrast to the atmosphere at the Coliseum over the past few seasons.
“I haven’t seen the Coli like that. Sitting up there at that (introductory) press conference close to 12 months ago and kind of just imagining that. These guys have brought it to life,” Riley said. “I don’t know how long it’s been since it was like that. I hadn’t been here before, but man, it was electric in there. That’s kind of what I remember watching as a young kid.”
So how has Riley put USC in this position?
Well, for starters, he added at least 30 players to the roster, including Williams, who starred for Riley at Oklahoma as a freshman in 2021.
Riley mined many other talented athletes through the transfer portal, such as wide receivers Jordan Addison (Pittsburgh) and Mario Williams (Oklahoma); running backs Travis Dye (Oregon) and Austin Jones (Stanford); and cornerback Mekhi Blackmon (Colorado).
USC even added a Utah player through the transfer portal during the offseason — linebacker Carson Tabaracci.
This explains, in part, how Riley was able to effectuate this turnaround.
“It’s been our players, it’s been this staff. We’ve come together in a really unique way,” Riley said. “Everybody on the outside thinks we just brought in a couple of guys that made that happen. Nothing could be further from the truth. The culture on this team has been awesome. You don’t just add a couple of players and have something change like this. There are some really special things going on with this team. We’ve just got to continue to find out how good we are.”
When asked about what Riley has been able to accomplish so far at USC, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham pointed out that because of the transfer portal, resurrecting moribund programs is “a lot easier than it used to be.”
Added Whittingham: “You saw several teams this year have almost a 180 because of talent brought in through the portal. That has really changed things. You’re going to see that more often, with teams making big improvements or going the other way if you lose a bunch of guys to the portal. That really has made things no longer a three- or four-year project. It’s turned into a one- or two-year project.”
Earlier this season, before Utah played USC the first time, Whittingham expressed a “huge distaste” for the way schools are building their programs — and he pointed out the struggles of Riley’s former team, Oklahoma. The Sooners have posted a 6-6 record this season.
“Obviously, he’s doing a great job at USC. Obviously, the transfer portal is being manifest how impactful it can be there and at Oklahoma,” he said. “Oklahoma had mass departures and USC had a mass influx of talent. You can see what’s happening.
“You can see that teams are able to make major improvement, or go the other way — more so than ever before because of the amount of turnover on your roster. There’s far more turnover on your roster now than there ever has been in the modern era of college football.”
Utah, on the other hand, has built its reputation on finding underrated players in high school and developing them into proven college players and helping them get to the NFL.
In October, when asked about how a program can retain players in this era of college football, Whittingham said the answer is pretty simple.
“Pay them a bunch of money. … That’s kind of what it comes down to. I’m not accusing anyone of illegal improprieties or anything like that because it’s all above-board now with NIL. But as I’ve said before, there’s going to come a time in the very, very near future where the top 25 NIL pots of money are going to mirror almost exactly the top 25 programs in the country,” he said. “That’s just how it is. That’s where it’s headed. There’s no debate about it, unless they change the rules. But I don’t know how (the NCAA is) going to backpedal now with the can of worms that they’ve opened.”
The two approaches will be on display Friday in Las Vegas, highlighting the contrasting styles of the two programs.
And there’s so much on the line at Allegiant Stadium.
For Utah, it’s a chance to repeat as Pac-12 champions and return to the Rose Bowl.
For USC, it’s an opportunity to win its first Pac-12 championship since 2017 and earn a spot in the CFP for the first time in program history.
Riley has lifted the Trojans to heights they haven’t reached in years. Few could have imagined that USC would be in this position so quickly.
But at the same time, the Utes could rain on the Trojans’ parade, and spoil their coronation, Friday in Las Vegas.
Pac-12 Championship Game
No. 11 Utah (9-3, 8-2)
vs. No. 4 USC (11-1, 8-1)
Friday, 6 p.m. MST
Radio: ESPN 700