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The Lincoln Riley Era is off and running at USC and the kid from West Texas is heightening expectations on the West Coast.
What do West Texas and Southern California have in common?
One embodies family values and conservative religion—the other consists of celebrity figures and street gangs.
Dust Bowls. Super Bowls.
Friday Night Lights. Hollywood Nights.
Both are known for having beautiful sunsets, but other than that, you couldn’t find two places with starker contrasts.
Lincoln Riley becoming USC’s 28th head football coach seemed unlikely to fit the West Texas kid.
USC is a unique job.
Not only is it a “Blue Blood” program with an illustrious history, but it requires a particular personality to be successful. Take Pete Carroll, for example. He had an uncanny ability to connect with the two factions of Los Angeles that encompass the city’s heartbeat.
Hollywood. And the streets.
Celebrities such as Will Ferrell and Snoop Dogg regularly attended USC practices and interacted with players during Carroll’s tenure.
On the flip side, he would periodically visit the toughest neighborhoods in South L.A.
The Los Angeles Times called him a “life force” for the inner-city due to his investment in the local communities.
To be clear, he wasn’t just donating large sums of money from his office chair. He spent time in those areas interacting with everyone. Community leaders, gang members, homeless people, local children and even crackheads.
He also formed a foundation called A Better LA which aimed to end inner-city violence.
Carroll captured the heart of the city, which helped him become one of the winningest coaches in USC history.
Fish Out Of Water
When news broke that Lincoln Riley was ditching Norman for sunny Southern California, I wondered if he’d be a good fit. Not because of his football acumen or his body of work as a head coach, but his culture.
Unlike Carroll, Riley is not from the West Coast; he was born and raised in a West Texas smalltown called Muleshoe. Even in his coaching career, he’s never been anywhere further west than Lubbock.
It felt like a ‘fish out of water’ hire, but then again, that’s not always a bad thing.
Riley and Carroll share two commonalities: their football I.Q. and confidence. Confidence is needed to succeed in Los Angeles, especially for someone unfamiliar with the way of life.
Mick Cronin is proof. The current head basketball coach at UCLA spent his entire life in the Midwest before heading to Westwood. Critics questioned if the gritty coach from Cincinnati would be a good fit in SoCal.
Cronin confidently instilled his philosophy as soon as he took over the program. After the COVID interrupted season, he led the Bruins to the Final Four in 2021. Followed by an appearance in the Sweet-16 this season.
If the hard-nosed, rugged Cronin can succeed at UCLA, then there’s no reason to think the charming country boy from West Texas can’t do the same at USC.
Since taking over the Trojans, Riley has instilled his confidence into every facet of the program: his coaching staff, players, the fan base and most importantly, recruiting.
Build A Fence
It’s no secret that USC has struggled to keep the top in-state talent in recruiting.
The Trojans failed to land more than two top-10 California recruits in 2017, 2019 and 2020. We’ve watched California athletes dominate the college football landscape during that time.
Players such as NFL Pro Bowler Najee Harris (Alabama), potential #1 overall NFL Draft pick Kayvon Thibidoeaux (Oregon) and Freshman All-American Xavier Worthy (Texas) all left the state.
Not to mention the stable of California quarterbacks who went elsewhere, such as Heisman winner Bryce Young (Alabama), CJ Stroud (Ohio State), DJ Ugailaiei (Clemson) and Matt Corral (Ole Miss).
Lincoln Riley has made it clear; he’s here to change that.
Within two months of taking over the program, he managed to sign three of the top California high school players to a transfer-laden signing class, including the top two in-state recruits: 5-star defensive back Domani Jackson and highly-touted 4-star running back Raleek Brown.
USC jumped from outside the top 100 to the top 10 in overall football team rankings for the 2022 class.
The Trojans also hauled in the #2 overall transfer signing class highlighted by former 5-star quarterback Caleb Williams. Williams followed Riley from Norman to Los Angeles.
Riley continues to build a fence around the West Coast as the 2023 class is already off to a blazing start. He’s landed commitments from two of the top-5 California kids and another from the top recruit in Nevada.
All three are 5-stars and have accumulated an average national ranking of 99.36 for 2023.
To put that in perspective, Texas A&M’s record-breaking 2022 signing class has an average national ranking of 94.77.
The hype is real, fans are excited, and the media is captivated.
And we’re only one week into spring football.
The school announced the April 23rd Spring Game will air on ESPN. Matt Barrie, Kirk Herbstreit, Joey Galloway and Molly McGrath will be on-site to call the game. USC’s spring game is the only one getting this type of coverage in college football.
Not Alabama, not rival Notre Dame, not even reigning national champ Georgia.
Why? Because it’s Lincoln Riley and USC.
Now I know what some of you are thinking, “let’s allow Riley to coach a game before we put him on, Trojan Mount Rushmore.”
But it’s evident Lincoln is setting the table for a massive season in 2022. He became known as the ‘quarterback whisperer’ in Norman, and he’ll begin his tenure at USC with former Sooner Caleb Williams at the helm.
And the Pac-12 isn’t exactly murderers’ row. There’s no reason to think Riley can’t duplicate his success from OU at USC in year one.
In five seasons as the Sooner head man, he reached the College Football Playoff (CFP) three times, won 55 games, produced two Heisman Trophy winners and averaged 43.4 points per game.
Looking at the Trojan schedule, three games will present a challenge: Utah (reigning Pac-12 champion), UCLA (crosstown rivalry) and Notre Dame (rivalry).
I won’t be shocked if the season finale against the Fighting Irish doesn’t have playoff implications. Yes, you read that correctly.
USC will be a threat to make the CFP in 2022.
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