We hear about 'culture changes' in college football all the time; one-season turnarounds ushered in by factors such as a new head coach or a star recruit. However, in this sport, success is fleeting. A great year can be followed up by a lackluster sophomore campaign, or even worse, a multi-year rebuild. Simply put, early victories on the field or the recruiting trail don't guarantee long-term contention.
With all that being said, Lincoln Riley's first few months at USC seem to have the makings of something that will last. The former Oklahoma Sooner has brought plenty of energy and excitement to Los Angeles, and with that often comes premier talent. The influx of players and personnel flocking to So-Cal has fans at their most excited since the Pete Carroll era, and rightfully so. However, the past decade is littered with Trojan squads that have fallen painfully short of lofty expectations. Can Riley build up this historic program to its former glory, or is this just more California dreaming?
The Good: Transfer Talent & Experience
Aside from simply getting one of the best coaches in the game, USC's roster has undergone a complete overhaul this spring. Following in the steps of Riley is former Sooner quarterback Caleb Williams, who quickly emerged as one of the nation's best passers in 2021. Although he played in just 11 games last season, Williams worked his way into the Heisman conversation thanks to a stellar 21:4 touchdown to interception ratio. Since he's only a sophomore, Williams placed a heavy emphasis on his development as an NFL Draft prospect by reuniting with Riley, widely seen as the game's leading quarterback whisperer.
Williams' production at USC should be buoyed by fellow transfer Jordan Addison. Addison, winner of the Fred Biletnikoff Award for the nation's best wide receiver, is the kind of high-profile addition that can truly elevate an offense. As a sophomore at Pittsburgh, Addison had 1,598 receiving yards in just 14 games. The impact he has on Williams' season could mirror that of Kenny Pickett last year, who became a Heisman finalist and first-round pick in the draft. Elsewhere, the Trojans made a massive in-conference move to land running back Travis Dye, who transferred from rival Oregon. Dye, the fourth-leading rusher in Ducks history, gives the offense plenty of big-play ability, ideally shouldering some of the load off Williams and the passing game.
The new faces aren't just on the field, but the sidelines as well. Riley's staff is comprised of veteran head coaches from various programs across the country, which should only amplify USC's brand nationally when pursuing high school recruits. Offensive coordinator Josh Henson is a 23-year veteran of the Big 12 and SEC, spending the last three years as Texas A&M's offensive line coach. Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch followed Riley to reprise the same role with the Trojans; since he was Washington State's DC from 2015 to 2017, Grinch has plenty of familiarity with the Pac-12 recruiting landscape.
The Bad: Questions Left Unanswered
In short, not much, but there's still plenty of questions that need to be answered before USC can be considered a true title contender. While new talent for a team that finished 4-8 in 2021 was needed, the sheer amount of players coming in means chemistry will take some time. Unlike other top schools like Alabama or Georgia, where schemes have been in place for years and most starters have had a year to get accustomed to the playbook, the Trojans are hoping their new additions can catch up to speed from day one.
However, fans should feel fairly confident in the offense heading into next season. Riley's play calling and the trio of Williams, Dye, and Addison are enough to keep this group near or at the top of the Pac-12 all season long. What will truly separate the Trojans is if their defense, which gave up an average of 31.8 points per game in 2021, improves. USC's linebackers should be a strength, thanks to Alabama transfer Shane Lee and Arizona State transfer Nick Gentry. However, the program is welcoming in five new starters to the secondary, a major shakeup for a position group that relies heavily on communication and being in sync. Up front, the defensive line is fairly thin after Tuli Tuipulotu, who has earned rave reviews from the coaching staff this spring.
Trojan fans have heard it all before; no amount of preseason polling and recruiting class rankings can translate to wins. That doesn't mean the changes Riley has brought to USC should be scoffed at. For far too long, the program has felt stagnant, bland, and downright complacent with just winning the Pac-12, which they've done only once since 2008. Regardless of how you feel about USC, this is a national brand meant to compete for national championships. Grabbing the biggest name on the coaching market and some of the biggest names in the transfer portal is just step one. The Trojans have the pieces needed to make a run at history. Now it's time to see what they're made of.