USC to the Big Ten: How the Trojans fit and storylines to watch
My first job out of college I covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers. In the summer of 2020, I wrote a piece for Hail Varsity about Nebraska’s move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten, 10 years later.
The Huskers were a powerhouse team on a national scale for decades leading up to the turn of the century, and even still a pretty important team to the greater college football landscape in the early 2000s. In 2009 and 2010, Nebraska played for conference titles. During the summer of 2010, Nebraska announced it was leaving the Big 12. The move was abrupt. It would play out the upcoming season in the Big 12 and then flip to the Big Ten.
Such a short runway did not help the program prepare for the stark shift in the way the game was played.
When the league added the Huskers, it thought it would have another premier program to pit against Ohio State and Michigan. In reality, it got a floundering, mismanaged team that has yet to live up to expectations.
In USC, the Big Ten is hoping for a College Football Playoff threat to rival Ohio State. As Lincoln Riley and his staff plot out how best to compete for titles in the Pac-12 these next two seasons while also readying for the Big Ten, Nebraska serves as an interesting parable.
One thing that became clear from that reporting was that coaches at NU had the decision made for them rather than by them. They had input, of course, but university leadership and power brokers in the athletic department were giving the final say-so at the end of the day.
According to The Athletic, the Big Ten’s communication with USC and UCLA started to pick up serious traction “over the past six to eight weeks” and accelerated considerably beginning on Wednesday night. That begs an interesting question: did Lincoln Riley know USC was planning this when he committed to take over the program last November?
Jon Wilner, who broke the news on Thursday, says he didn’t initially. Surely Riley was involved in discussions to join the league once those discussions reached a certain point, but if it wasn’t something he initially signed up for and it wasn’t something he’d have a decisive vote in, that makes for an interesting position to put the new head coach into.
Riley gets two years before he jumps to an entirely new conference. That conference is littered with high-level coaches. It provides a drastically different style of play. It brings about an entirely new region to recruit. It features a weather component that USC has only had to manage in select spots in the Pac-12.
The Trojans are expected to compete for Pac-12 titles and College Football Playoff berths immediately under Riley, but while figuring out the best plan of attack for accomplishing that goal, Riley will also need to keep an eye toward the future and start molding his roster immediately to better fit the Big Ten.
That’s an incredibly fine needle to thread.
How does all this reframe his hiring?
Riley’s offense fits into the Pac-12 as a perfect monster. He’s a Mike Leach Air Raid disciple, boasting a brand of offense that will attract elite skill position talent and quarterbacks the country over. But he’s also put his own twist on the Leach scheme—a commitment to running the ball.
In the Pac-12, Riley will be able to run over smaller defenses. In the Big Ten, he’ll find no such opportunities. Lowly Rutgers ranked 21st nationally last season in defensive success rate allowed.
The Big Ten featured eight teams among the 50 best run-stopping units in the country last season, four of which were in the top 15. The Pac-12 had three in the top 50—UCLA among them—and none in the top 25.
Nine Big Ten defenses ranked inside the top 35 for points per play allowed. The Pac-12 had two, Arizona State and Cal.
Riley’s plan of attack best resembles Ohio State’s, and the Buckeyes have been blitzing the rest of the league for years. It might require a bit of an adjustment period, but Riley-led USC offenses figure to be closer to Ohio State than the rest of the Big Ten. He remains one of the elite offensive minds in football.
How does this move change the calculus on defense?
Given the elements and the recruiting footprint, the vast majority of the conference is going to play old-school football. Six Big Ten teams were top-50 last season in run rate. Minnesota and Wisconsin had the highest run rates of any non-service academy team in the country. Michigan used a punishing ground game to beat the Buckeyes. Minnesota nearly did the same in the season-opener.
The Trojans will see a fair amount of 13 personnel and a fair amount of I-formation and hulking offensive linemen across the board.
USC’s front seven needs to get bigger. Period.
The Trojans yielded 4.6 yards a carry last season and struggled against the power backs they saw. Oregon State ran for 322 yards and over 6 a pop. ASU ran for 282 at nearly 7 a play and then UCLA went for 260 at 6 a play a week later.
Some of that has to do with circumstance. USC was running out the clock with an interim coach late in a lost season. But make no mistake, the Big Ten has more Oregon State offensive lines than not and USC is going to have to consciously prepare itself for that change.
Nebraska went heavy on defensive backs and speed rushers off the edge in the Big 12. With the Big 12 being more pass-heavy, sheer size in the front seven wasn’t an end-all, be-all. That feels like a similarity here. Where the two situations diverge—and it’s an important fork—is in recruiting.
USC has the recruiting footprint to propel itself into the league. And with the Trojans moving into the Big Ten in 2024, Riley will be able to immediately sell high school recruits in the area on all the benefits that league provides.
The Trojans will have something to sell that no one else on the West Coast will, save for UCLA. A fun thought experiment: had USC been able to pitch Josh Conerly Jr. on playing in the Big Ten, would that have changed the recruiting battle with Oregon? Maybe it wouldn’t, but that was a blue-chip offensive lineman and the Big Ten is ostensibly the best offensive line league in the country. (Greg Sankey didn’t like that comment.)
In the same way Southern California is now more open to the rest of the Big Ten, the Big Ten footprint is now open to USC. It will be interesting to see how USC recruits Ohio and Michigan going forward.
A third of the top 36 interior offensive linemen in the 2023 class play in the Big Ten footprint. Five of the top 15 tackles play in the Big Ten footprint. As the Trojans prepare for the Big Ten, no piece of the roster is more important than the line of scrimmage.
Especially so when you consider Big Ten teams will want to bring it right at the Trojans when they arrive in two years.
“Our first year, everyone wanted to beat us,” former Nebraska assistant Tim Beck told me years ago. “We were new. They wanted to show that the Big Ten was a much stronger conference in their eyes than the Big 12 was. I felt that the first year. We had a tough go of it. We got thrown right into the fire.”
The TV folks will want to see Ohio State at the L.A. Coliseum. They’ll want to see a white out in Happy Valley with the Trojans coming out of the tunnel on the other side. They won’t want to wait. They are not paying a billion a year to see USC beat up on Rutgers.
And from Ohio State on down to the Indianas and Rutgers of the conference, everyone will see USC coming in with all the attention, all the praise, and all the expectations, and they’ll want to make a point. The Big Ten is a proud collection of teams. Though presidents and athletic directors understand the value add, I suspect there will be an element of “welcome to Big Boy Ball” from some of the teams themselves.
Riley has a challenge on his hands that, in some ways, he didn’t sign up for. The Big Ten won’t be the only league waiting to punch USC in the mouth; the Pac-12 teams left behind probably feel some type of way about their current predicament.
How these next two years go will be fascinating to watch. USC leadership stepped up to the mic and declared its intentions loud and clear. The stakes have been raised.