After college football’s rivalry weekend delivered its share of surprises and a shake-up to the 2021 season, the coaching carousel followed suit on Sunday with the news Lincoln Riley would depart Oklahoma for USC. The news of Riley’s departure was a significant shock to the world of college football, which came just hours after he denied a potential departure to LSU. Instead, less than 24 hours later, Riley was on his way to Los Angeles. The Trojans needed to take a big swing in this coaching carousel and finally get it right. Not only did the program connect with that swing– it hit a grand slam in the process.
Offensive prowess, recruiting ability and a track record of success are just a few boxes this hire checks off for USC. But most importantly, Riley’s hire gives credibility to a program that the Pac-12 needs to return back to annual contender status to give the league another threat in the College Football Playoff mix and work to balance out the power structure in the sport.
Landing Riley is a massive and seismic hire for a program aiming to return to the top of college football after a 17-19 mark over the last three full seasons. After all, a big-time coach leaving a top-10 job for another top-10 job in college football is pretty rare. Riley went 55-10 at Oklahoma after taking over for Bob Stoops in 2017 and made the playoff in three of five years at the helm. Also, the only season of fewer than 10 victories was the abbreviated ’20 campaign. To put Riley's 55 wins in perspective, USC has won just 60 contests since '14.
Riley is widely regarded as one of the top minds on offense in college football, as all five of his offenses as head coach at Oklahoma finished 11th or better in the nation in scoring. Three of Riley’s quarterback pupils start in the NFL – Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts – and two of them claimed college football’s top award in the Heisman Trophy while throwing for record-setting seasons in Riley’s offense. Think that will be attractive on the recruiting trail in a state that regularly produces top talent at quarterback and receiver and keeping those players at home has been a problem? With Riley’s background on offense and track record of putting quarterbacks and receivers in the NFL, USC should win more battles in keeping that talent at home – which is good for the program’s prospects of winning more but also hurting other top-tier teams in the process.
If success at a high level wasn’t a problem for Riley in Norman, why make the move to Los Angeles? For starters, USC grades just a bit higher in the ranking of the best jobs in the sport. Also, it offers something that became more appealing after the realignment news this offseason: A more favorable path to a national championship. Oklahoma was the No. 1 or No. 2 job in the Big 12, but in the SEC, it's potentially behind Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Florida and Texas A&M in this hierarchy. In other words, getting to 12-1 or 11-2 – even in an expanded playoff – will be easier at USC in the Pac-12 than at Oklahoma in the SEC.
USC offers the best of college football. There’s the ability to recruit at a high level in fertile recruiting territory, a rich tradition, and plenty of opportunities for players in the new era of NIL. Also, as the best job in a conference with not as many heavyweights as the SEC, there’s a favorable path is there to compete for Pac-12 championships and the national title on an annual basis.
After years of toiling in mediocrity or outside of the main list of contenders in college football since Pete Carroll went to the NFL, USC had to aim high in its coaching search to replace Clay Helton. Mission accomplished. While the success of a coaching hire won’t be known for years and is never guaranteed, USC’s ability to pull Riley away from Oklahoma is a massive win for the program and certainly helps the Pac-12 is the battle for power in college football.
After a weekend filled with results to shake up college football’s 2021 landscape, the coaching carousel moves from that same weekend are likely to provide plenty of aftershocks to the balance of power in the coming years. Riley to USC is one of the biggest moves in the carousel in recent years, and the program’s desire to aim high (and get it right) should pay off in a big way in the future.
Podcast: Huge Coaching News (Lincoln Riley to USC) and Breaking Down a Great Rivalry Weekend