Pac-12 preview: With hiring of Lincoln Riley, expectations for USC have skyrocketed
The USC administration seems to have hit a home run by luring Riley, who led the Sooners to three College Football Playoff appearances, from Norman to Los Angeles
So what will be the Lincoln Riley effect at USC?
The hiring of Riley away from Oklahoma sent shockwaves around college football. The Trojans, one of the traditional powerhouses in the sport, had fallen on hard times with last year’s embarrassing 4-8 campaign. USC lost to both Utah and BYU at home in 2021.
The USC administration seems to have hit a home run by luring Riley, who led the Sooners to three College Football Playoff appearances, from Norman to Los Angeles.
Suddenly, expectations are high. Can the Trojans compete for a Pac-12 title right away?
Riley is doing nothing to tamp down those expectations.
“I’m not going to take any goal off the table,” Riley said. “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.”
The Trojans have immersed themselves in the transfer portal and hauled in impressive results — Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams; Oklahoma wide receiver Mario Williams; Pittsburgh wide receiver Jordan Addison, the 2021 Biletnikoff winner, emblematic of the country’s top wideout; and Oregon running back Travis Dye, to name just a handful.
During his career, Riley has produced two Heisman Trophy winners at quarterback, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. Caleb Williams will certainly be a Heisman candidate this season. He’s both a dynamic passer and a dynamic runner.
Williams took over the starting job for Oklahoma with a stellar performance against Texas a month into the 2021 season. He came in for an ineffective Spencer Rattler and helped the Sooners came from behind to defeat Texas 55-48 in the Red River Showdown.
In that game, Williams threw for 212 yards and two touchdowns and he ran four times for 88 yards and a TD.
“He’s been able early in his career to be able to break some tackles and make some guys miss, which typically when a quarterback gets out, there can be a lot of space, there’s opportunity for big plays,” Riley said.
“For a quarterback, he’s got pretty decent top-end speed. Had several long runs for us last year, explosive runs. He’s a guy where, defensively, he’s tough to account for. Having a guy on him is one thing, but sometimes getting him to the ground is a little tougher.”
Riley has said the new USC offense will have elements of the “Air Raid” system, but the Trojans could run the ball quite a bit.
“The Air Raid stuff came from all of our background at Texas Tech,” Riley said. “Over the last seven years, we’ve had the highest yards per carry of any college football team in the country.
“We’ve (run) the ball at a high level for a long time, so I don’t know that Air Raid really fits anymore, to be honest.”
The Trojans have struggled in the run game for years. Last season, they ranked No. 107 nationally.
While USC is loaded with talent at the skill positions, there are questions about the offensive line. Can it protect Williams and open holes for the running backs?
On defense, new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has a lot of work to do. Grinch inherits a defense that allowed 34.2 points in Pac-12 games last year, and with only three returning starters, there are plenty of holes to fill.
The Trojans did add Arizona State linebacker Eric Gentry, who was a freshman All-American last season.
Can USC live up to lofty expectations this season?
“If you’re in this city, and you don’t feel the momentum around this program, you’re not paying attention,” Riley said. “Our guys feel it right now.”
2021 record: 4-8 (3-6 Pac-12).
LB Tayler Katoa (Layton HS).
LB Carson Tabaracci (Park City HS).
Sept. 3 Rice
Sept. 10 @ Stanford
Sept. 17 Fresno State
Sept. 24 @ Oregon State
Oct. 1 Arizona State
Oct. 8 Washington State
Oct. 15 @ Utah
Oct. 29 @ Arizona
Nov. 5 California
Nov. 11 Colorado
Nov. 19 @ UCLA
Nov. 26 Notre Dame