Lincoln Riley is flipping USC in remarkable fashion at the expense of the rest of the Pac-12
On Dec. 17, the day of what will likely be the most reserved Early Signing Day of the Lincoln Riley tenure, USC’s overall class (transfers included) ranked 82nd nationally—ahead of only Washington and Arizona State in the Pac-12.
Riley said then that the Trojans were going to operate as if the Early Signing Period was just a start, not necessarily the finish line established coaches view the window as. “There’s not any position we wouldn’t consider right now,” Riley said at his signing day press conference. “We may overhaul 35 spots, if not more, on this roster.” But they were going to build piece by piece, he said, rather than rush to fill a class and “win a Wednesday in December.”
Fast forward just to Jan. 22, and Riley’s first USC recruiting class, transfers included, has risen up to No. 13 nationally.
It’s the best class in the Pac-12. USC sits only five spots behind Riley’s old team in the rankings. USC has the second-best transfer class in the country before it adds the quarterback everyone is expecting to join the fold.
It’s not that USC is dominating the portal or cleaning up in California, it’s that the Trojans are doing it at the expense of the rest of the conference.
Transition classes are notoriously misrepresentative of what’s coming for a coaching staff. The timeline is abbreviated, and most coaches just try and take what they can get. The transfer portal changes the dynamic a bit, but what Riley and his staff have done so far is uncommon. He promised to flip the roster. With a few outstanding tasks left to check off (linebacker, namely), he has done exactly that.
It’s also curious to see the contrasting ways the Pac-12’s two new high-profile coaches are treating their first offseasons.
“I told our players the very first time I met them the reality is we’re going to win with the players that are here, the players that are on this team right now,” new Oregon coach Dan Lanning said recently. “We’re going to continue to focus on the guys that are on this team right now, building our success moving forward with those players, and then again, looking for opportunities to enhance it because there are some places that we can grow and places we can get better along the road.”
USC so far has seen 16 scholarship players enter into the transfer portal, replaced by 10 known transfer commitments. The Trojans can and probably will add more. The Trojans might and probably will see more attrition.
Both gameplans can lead to successful Year 1s, to be fair. And Lanning will likely be able to lead Oregon to consistently strong recruiting classes; Oregon’s also a pretty easy place to recruit talent to.
But what Riley has done over the last two months has to be worrisome for the rest of the league. It’s bordering on worst-case scenario territory, especially so if Caleb Williams joins the fun. This is Urban-Meyer-at-Ohio-State levels of immediate ROI.
This is free agency with a program flipping from 4-8 to all-conference in one offseason. It’s a perfect storm—Durant hitting free agency during a cap spike while the Warriors have their star on a bargain deal.
If USC follows up this offseason by legitimately challenging Utah for the South (I still would think Utah would be the favorites), this train is officially up and running. We might not be looking at an Oklahoma-like run on championships (five straight Big 12 titles) but an Ohio State-like stay in the title game (five B1G title game appearances in eight years) could absolutely be on the table.
A “quick” rundown of some of the additions USC has made so far:
- Oregon RB Travis Dye: 3,111 rushing yards, 869 receiving yards, 29 total touchdowns
- Stanford RB Austin Jones: 1,155 rushing yards, 531 receiving yards, 13 total touchdowns, former 4-star
- RB Raleek Brown: 5-star 2022 signee, top-50 prospect
- Colorado WR Brenden Rice: 33 receptions, 419 yards, five scores, former 4-star
- Washington WR Terrell Bynum: 64 receptions, 934 yards, six scores, former 4-star
- WR CJ Williams: 4-star 2022 signee: top-100 prospect
- Colorado DB Mekhi Blackmon: team captain in 2021 with 41 tackles, four pass breakups, one interception
- DB Domani Jackson: 5-star 2022 signee, top-10 prospect
- DB Zion Branch: 4-star 2022 signee, top-50 prospect
From a transfer perspective, USC has secured commitments from guys who started last season at Oregon, Stanford, Colorado, and Washington. There are transfers in the class from players who couldn’t crack a rotation at their last school—the kind of transfer most programs get—but a significant chunk of the class is made up of players who were big parts of the equation at their previous stops.
To do that to conference opponents is cold. To be able to do that speaks to the immediate credibility Riley’s name carries even before he wins anything of substance at Southern Cal.
From a high school perspective, USC signed three of the top six California prospects from the 2022 class and has commitments already from three 5-stars, including two of the top four California prospects from the 2023 class.
Riley’s recruiting at Oklahoma drew him national acclaim. He can up the ante at USC.
The most interesting part of all this is what happens now. Many thought he’d be able to do exactly what he’s doing from a recruiting standpoint. But how do all the pieces fit together?
Tahj Washington (54 receptions, 602 yards in 2021) and Gary Bryant Jr. (44 receptions, 579 yards, seven scores) are expected back after finishing as the No. 2 and 3 wideouts last season. Kyle Ford, a former top-50 4-star prospect from the 2019 class, is also expected back.
How does Riley spread the ball around? How does he divvy out the snaps? There are going to be odd men out.
How does Darwin Barlow—62 runs, 289 yards, two scores last season—feel about the additions at running back? What does the future look like for former 4-star back Brandon Campbell?
There’s probably some attrition that should be expected in the secondary as well. And there’s still a very big question surrounding the defensive front seven.
But if Riley and his staff are going to be able to recruit like this now, it would stand to reason they’ll be able to consistently threaten for top-five classes when they have the time to evaluate and build relationships properly. At that point, attrition doesn’t hurt USC like it would hurt others.
And if the rest of the conference is going to be a feeder for talent to USC, good luck to everyone else.