When Lincoln Riley was hired by USC in late-November 2018, pundits across the land imagined Heritage Hall turning once more into the most popular place in all of college football, the kind of hallowed hallways that were once filled by 5-stars and would be once more.

When Riley put his fingerprints on a turnaround that ranked among the best in the country, from 4 wins to 11, the floodgates were expected to open.

When Caleb Williams hoisted the Heisman Trophy, Riley’s third quarterback to win the award in 6 seasons, a parade was portended to Los Angeles the likes of which had not been seen since the halcyon days of the Pete Carroll era, when USC coaches could walk into any living room in the southland and emerge with at least a slice of pie, if not an oral commitment.

So … what exactly has happened here?

The Trojans have made all the splash of a trout flopping off a boat.

Yes, they landed a whale on Monday in Anquan Fegans, one of the top safeties in the country … in the class of 2025. Yes, they snagged a commitment from the final 5-star in tight end Duce Robinson … in the class of 2023.

But USC’s 2024 class consists of all of 3 commits — 4-star wide receiver Xavier Jordan, 4-star tight end Joey Olsen and 4-star athlete Bryan Jackson — each of them good prospects but none of them gamebreakers. The class as a whole ranks just 50th in the country, behind Oregon, Arizona and Colorado among Pac-12 programs.

And compared to the nation’s elite? The group that Riley is ostensibly challenging for college football supremacy?

Michigan already has 6 commitments, including 1 5-star and 10 4-stars. Ohio State ranks 2nd with 13 commits, including 2 5-stars and 9 4-stars. Georgia is once again loading up, with 11 commitments so far, including 4 5-stars and 5 4-stars.

While, yes, the Trojans are in the running for some of the top players in the nation, it’s fair to say results have been underwhelming.

“You look up the lack of commitments and lack of activity on the high school front, and it should raise some flags,” 247Sports west region recruiting analyst Blair Angulo told me Tuesday night. “Especially because Lincoln Riley at Pac-12 Media Day last summer emphasized the need for them to get more physical and add more talent ahead of their move to the Big Ten. He said he needed this roster to look the part. That’s clearly not what has happened in 2024. Are they holding off on commitments? Are they telling kids to wait until the summer? Obviously its not great when a place like Oklahoma, where he left finished, top 5 in recruiting under Brent Venables and Riley hasn’t brought that firepower with him on the recruiting trail.”

Not the high school recruiting trail, at least.

USC has dominated the transfer portal like few others since Riley’s arrival, first with the addition of supernovas like Caleb Williams and Jordan Addison in Year 1 and Pac-12 leading receiver Dorian Singer this year. The Trojans have seemingly been on the radar of many top portal prospects, with Los Angeles and a rebuilding dynasty offering a compelling combination.

“They’re in the mindset that they’re going to continuously reload in the portal,” Angulo said. “They saw the impact that had on their roster. And it paid off for them. When you’re a few snaps away from being a College Football Playoff team and who knows what happens in that game against Utah if Caleb Williams isn’t hurt. Riley saw it as a shortcut, and when you look at the impact those guys had — Williams, Travis Dye, Eric Gentry — when you get that close and taste it, maybe a lightbulb went off. Maybe there’s a new formula there. It’s a very NFL-type mindset. It’s going to be an interesting experiment. It’s uncharted territory in a way, some of the way these tams are balancing a roster.”

Shouldn’t USC be able to do both?

Shouldn’t the Trojans be forces in the high school ranks and in the portal? Is that too much to ask?

“The focus and emphasis has clearly been in the transfer portal and making a splash with college-ready playmakers,” Angulo said. “We’ve seen their effort concentrated there: shoring up the defense, bringing in players who fill gaps. Who could rally blame him? With what (Riley) saw on the field and how quickly he turned it around, I think he’s completely amazed at how quick that went. I don’t think he thought it would work as quickly as it did. They were ahead of schedule last year. After four wins, I don’t think anyone would see them turn it around that quickly.”

Maybe Riley’s fast success has him fast-tracking what he perhaps thought would be a multi-year rebuild.

But with Deion Sanders and Colorado whipping up a frenzy and Dan Lanning and Oregon looking to regain the Ducks’ footing on the Pac-12 mountaintop, it’s fair to say that the Trojans have been a letdown.

“They don’t have the momentum that maybe they should’ve had after this season, when they won as many games they did, got close to the CFP, Caleb goes to New York and wins the Heisman,” Angulo said. “So many things they could’ve used to capitalize in high recruiting, and they haven’t. As much buzz as they built, and they were able to get a couple quick 5 stars in the 2023 class, but we just haven’t seen that sort of impact in the 2024 cycle.”